Chemical terrorism; Industry, agencies unprepared to prevent or respond to it

June 9, 2003
The Charlotte Observer

Who's really prepared for a chemical terrorist attack on U.S. soil? Just about nobody, apparently. State public health laboratories are high on the list of defaulters, according to a nonprofit, nonpartisan group. A state-by-state analysis from the Trust for America's Health says a significant majority of labs don't have the equipment or skills to identify a broad range of potential chemical weapons. No lab -- not one -- has the capacity to test for some of the most common dangerous chemicals. Only two states have the capacity to test for cyanide, although it is commercially available or found naturally in 41 states. Only eight states have drafted plans for responding to a chemical attack. "If we have to respond to a chemical terrorism event, it will be a train wreck," said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. "We don't have a national plan or testing methods or a lead agency for many of the laboratory activities that will be needed when a crisis occurs." Meanwhile, experts say, security at commercial chemical plants remains poor. Across the country, each of 123 plants could endanger more than 1 million people if a terrorist attack released toxic clouds. Another 700 plants could threaten 100,000 people each. Another 3,000 plants could threaten 10,000 people each. Government investigators have warned that chemical facilities make attractive targets for terrorists because they're often located in densely populated areas where large numbers of casualties are possibilities. The CIA has warned that al-Qaida has considered attacks against industrial chemical facilities. The Department of Homeland Security has warned that chemical and nuclear power plants "remain viable targets." Yet draft security regulations have stalled amid bureaucratic squabbling. Congress tried to weigh in last summer. The Senate considered a bill requiring plants posing the biggest threats to assess their vulnerabilities and develop safeguards. But some senators questioned details, and no vote was called before the session adjourned. Many plants have voluntarily improved security, but the scope of their action is not comprehensively known. One trade group, the American Chemistry Council, favors a national strategy but represents only a fraction of the industry. More legislation is afoot in Congress but again is slowed by disagreement. Democrats want mandatory federal measures including requirements that companies use less dangerous materials when they can. Republicans want standards drawn by the chemical industry. And that's where matters stand. America's chemical industry is seriously vulnerable to attack, and the public health establishment is essentially unequipped to respond if one occurs. The government knows this, the industry knows this, and the public health community knows this. Yet little of substance is happening. This is a blueprint for catastrophe.

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