Targets for Terrorists: Chemical Facilities

Attacks on U.S. chemical facilities have the potential to affect thousands, possibly millions of people, yet many of them remain poorly secured. Legislation to improve security standards has been watered down.

December 11, 2006

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Chemicals are an essential part of life in the United States, vital to such industries as agriculture, manufacturing, oil refining, waste and drinking water management, and pharmaceutical production. But chemicals can pose a serious risk: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies fifteen thousand facilities that produce, use, or store potentially dangerous quantities of hazardous chemicals. Many of these plants sit in densely populated areas, which could be harmed if exposed to certain chemicals, and experts fear these facilities could be attractive targets for terrorists. Evaluating chemical security in a recent podcast, Stephen E. Flynn, CFR senior fellow for national security studies, called current efforts “totally unsatisfactory in light of the threat that some very deadly chemicals can pose.”

Are U.S. chemical facilities safe?

Experts disagree. Some point to the lax security documented at chemical plants in recent years. In 2002, Carl Prine, an investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, found he could simply walk onto the premises of dozens of chemical plants around the country, some of which stored hazardous materials that could endanger millions of people. In a few cases, employees even “gave directions to the most sensitive valves and control rooms.”

But Alex Skora, president and CEO of Estron Chemical, says security is not as loose as Prine would suggest. “You’re always going to find lapses here and there,” he says, adding that if for no other reason than liability, “The industry polices itself extremely vigorously.”

Nevertheless, experts warn chemical facilities are particularly attractive targets for terrorists. “When you look at all of the different targets that could be attacked in the United States,” terrorism expert Richard A. Falkenrath told a 2005 Senate committee hearing, “and ask yourself which ones present the greatest possibility of mass casualties and are the least well secured at the present time, one target set flies off the page, and that is chemicals.”

What sort of impact could an attack on a chemical facility have?

Terrorists pose two main threats to chemical plants: A direct attack or sabotage could expose the surrounding population to hazardous chemicals, or theft of chemicals could provide terrorists with a weapon for use in a later attack.

Of the fifteen thousand hazardous chemical facilities in the United States, the Department of Justice has estimated that seven thousand have the potential to affect upwards of one thousand people in the surrounding area. The EPA estimates 123 of those plants could affect more than one million people. An October 2001 study by the U.S. Army Surgeon General found a terrorist attack resulting in a chemical release had the potential to kill or injure some 2.4 million people, though the report was later rescinded. While these numbers are alarming, many experts call them misleading, as they represent the number of people within a certain radius, not the number of people who would likely become exposed in the event of a release of toxic chemicals. Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Robert B. Stephan told a June 2005 congressional hearing that his agency estimates “The highest-risk facility in the United States would produce under ten thousand potential fatalities.”

In addition to the human cost, Flynn suggests an attack on a chemical plant could send shockwaves through the U.S. economy. He points out that many chemical plants and refineries are located near ports or major highways, and an attack could disrupt the flow of commerce through those areas.

Are chemical facilities the only points of vulnerability?

No. Many of the plants that use hazardous chemicals do not produce them; rather, the chemicals must travel to the plant. This makes the system for transporting the chemicals—primarily the rail system—another point of vulnerability. Due to the nature of rail transportation, the nation’s rail lines invariably pass through nearly every major city, and point-to-point chemical shipments by rail rarely have the option of bypassing urban areas. For this reason, the rail transportation industry faces many of the same challenges as the chemical industry.

What kinds of chemicals are most dangerous?

The EPA maintains a list of 140 chemicals, which if stored in large enough quantities, require their owners to submit a “risk management plan.” The list (PDF) includes seventy-seven toxins and sixty-three flammables. The toxins are of particular concern, as their release would potentially affect the most people. But some of these are more dangerous than others and some have greater commercial use and are more readily found in large quantities. 

Two of the most common, most dangerous substances are:

  • Chlorine Gas is widely used in water purification and as bleach in manufacturing paper and cloth. Many other products, including plastics, paint, petroleum products, and solvents, require chlorine for their production. But the gas is also a deadly inhalant, and was even used as a weapon in World War I. Chlorine is stored and transported in very large quantities; a singe rail car holds ninety tons of the chemical.
  • Anhydrous Ammonia may be used as a refrigerant or as a fertilizer in agricultural operations. It absorbs moisture on contact, and in humans can attack the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. A single tank can hold more than six thousand gallons of the chemical.

Who is responsible for overseeing security at chemical plants?

Congress first became concerned following a disastrous 1984 leak at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, which claimed nearly four thousand lives. Subsequent legislation required state and local authorities to prepare contingency plans for chemical releases, and later, for owners and operators of chemical facilities to devise “Risk Management Plans” to help prevent the release of dangerous chemicals and mitigate damage from such a leak. But these were hardly stringent regulations, and a more recent federal report, the 2003 National Strategy for the Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets noted, “There is currently no clear, unambiguous legal or regulatory authority at the federal level to help ensure comprehensive, uniform security standards for chemical facilities.”

Instead, oversight was piecemeal. Facilities near ports were regulated by the Maritime Transportation Security Act, and water plants were regulated by the Bioterrorism Act, but many others remained largely unregulated. Many chemical companies were subject to security regulations mandated by industry organizations, such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a situation disparaged as a conflict of interests by critics. In the absence of federal oversight, New Jersey in 2005 became the first state to mandate certain security measures at chemical plants. This precedent concerns the chemical industry, which worries it will soon have to keep track of different requirements in each of the fifty states.

To fix this, the Senate considered two bills—S.2145 (PDF) and S.2486 (PDF)—and the House of Representatives proposed a bill of its own, H.R.5695 (PDF). Before any of these made much progress, Congress passed an appropriations bill giving the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interim authority until 2009 to review and approve chemical sites’ security plans. The measure does not allow DHS to require specific measures, and provides a mere $10 million to improve chemical plant security. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, who championed chemical security during his time in the U.S. Senate, called the measure “particularly disturbing.” Some view it as an end run around the legislative process to prevent stronger measures from passing; Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-MA) accused congressional leaders of bowing “to the wishes of the chemical industry behind closed doors to negotiate the weak, inadequate language.”

What more can be done to increase safety at chemical facilities?

One approach that has gained some momentum in recent years is a shift to “Inherently Safer Technologies” (ISTs). Basically, this entails replacing dangerous chemicals with safer ones, such as using liquid bleach in place of chlorine when purifying water. ISTs not only improve security at chemical facilities, they also lessen the dangers of shipping large quantities of hazardous materials.

ISTs are welcomed by the chemical industry as well. In fact, “the industry invented the concept,” says Scott Jenson, a spokesperson for the ACC. “If there’s a technology that’s inherently safer, without performance tradeoffs, most companies are going to do it voluntarily,” explains Skora. Industry leaders have resisted measures requiring implementation of ISTs in part because there are some processes involving hazardous chemicals for which there is no safe substitute. “Our reaction is mixed because you’re really talking about fundamental process changes,” Jensen says.  

Daniel B. Prieto, senior fellow and director of the Reform Institute’s Homeland Security Center, suggests legislation should force chemical companies to explore the option but not require them to implement. If a company documents its consideration of ISTs and opts not to use them, he says, the company’s liability in the event of an accident or attack increases. New Jersey already requires its chemical companies to do this, but Jensen says such measures are “overly onerous for what you really accomplish in the long run.”

A recent report (PDF) from the Center for American Progress documents a number of chemical facilities that have switched to ISTs. Prieto points out most of these are water treatment plants, which were required by the Bioterrorism Act to assess their own vulnerabilities.

Have terrorists attempted to attack chemical plants in the United States?

Not directly, though the Government Accountability Office (PDF), citing the Justice Department, says in the late 1990s domestic terrorists plotted an attack on a facility that housed millions of gallons of propane.

A clearer link to terrorism is evident in the story of Nidal Ayyad, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked for a New Jersey chemical company. Ayyad was also one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, and used his position at the company to procure chemicals to make the bomb. At his trial, testimony indicated that Ayyad and his cohorts stole cyanide and were planning to release it in office-building ventilation systems.