Presence of explosive chemical sites often kept secret amid terrorism fears, shoddy record-keeping
WASHINGTON — Fears of terrorism have made it harder than ever for citizens to find out what dangerous chemicals lurk in their backyards, The Associated Press has found. Secrecy and shoddy record-keeping have kept the public and emergency workers in the dark about stockpiles of explosive materials.
A monthlong reporting effort by the AP, drawing upon public records in 28 states, found more than 120 facilities within a potentially devastating blast zone of schoolchildren, the elderly and the sick. But how many others exist nationwide is a mystery, as other states refused to provide data.
People living near these facilities who want to know what hazardous materials they store would have to request the information from state environmental agencies or emergency management offices. County emergency management officials also would have it. The federal government does not have a central database, and while the Homeland Security Department has a list of ammonium nitrate facilities, it does not share it because of security concerns.
Until the fertilizer company in West, Texas, blew up last month and demolished scores of homes, many in that town did not know what chemicals were stored alongside the railroad tracks or how dangerous they were. Even some of the rescue workers didn’t know what they were up against.
“We never thought of an explosive potential,” said Dr. George Smith, the EMS director who responded to the factory fire by running to a nearby nursing home to prepare for a possible chemical spill.
Across the country, hundreds of buildings like the one in West store some type of ammonium nitrate. They sit in quiet fields and by riverside docks, in business districts and near schools, hospitals and day care centers.
At least 60 facilities reported to state regulators as having about as much or more ammonium nitrate than the 540,000 pounds West Fertilizer Co. said it had at some point last year. The AP contacted 20 of the facilities individually to confirm the information, and three companies disputed the records. Some of the facilities stored the chemical in solid form, which is among the most dangerous.
Exactly how many other facilities exist nationwide is a mystery.
Ammonium nitrate is an industrial fertilizer and mining explosive that, stored correctly, is stable and safe. But industrial history is dotted with dozens of deadly accidents involving the chemical.
Before Texas, the most recent incident occurred at a fertilizer factory in Toulouse, France, in 2001. An explosion killed 31, prompting France to pass a law requiring tougher regulations on the chemical.
Texas investigators still don’t know what caused the fire that triggered the West explosion, but the devastation was a reminder of the chemical’s power.
Anti-government terrorist Timothy McVeigh used a truckload of ammonium nitrate to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Because of that explosive potential, if a fire were to break out at an ammonium nitrate company, everyone within a quarter- to a half-mile radius could be at risk, according to scientific papers. Debris from the Texas explosion landed more than two miles away.
In the states that provided verifiable data, the AP’s analysis found more than 600,000 people who live within a quarter-mile of a facility, a potential blast zone if as little as 190 tons of ammonium nitrate are detonated. More send their children to school or have family in hospitals in those blast zones.
More often than not, census data show, the danger zones are middle-class or poor neighborhoods.
In more than a half-dozen states, including Ohio, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho and South Carolina, refused to provide such information to the AP, citing the risk of terrorist attacks and their interpretations of federal law.
Others, such as West Virginia, said the AP had to review paper records in person or request records one by one.
The result is a peculiarity of the post-9/11 age: Statistically, Americans are more likely to be hurt from chemical or industrial accidents like the one in Texas than from terrorist attacks like the one in Boston. Yet information intended to keep people safe is concealed in the name of keeping people safe.
Since the 1980s, states have been required under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act to tell people where dangerous chemicals are stored and how much is nearby in Tier II chemical inventory reports.
That law followed a chemical leak in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 1,700 and another in West Virginia that led to an evacuation.
Ammonium nitrate has been responsible for some of the largest industrial disasters in history. What remains the worst industrial accident in the nation’s history was an ammonium nitrate-triggered explosion in 1947 that killed more than 570 people in Texas City, Texas, and injured about 5,000.
Times have changed. Fears of chemical spills have given way to fears of terrorism.
In Hawaii, for example, officials said people must prove a “need to know” before they can obtain information. Though the state did not respond to a request for an explanation, the policy echoed others that cited a 2007 federal law intended to protect chemical plants from terrorist attacks.
But the need-to-know requirement does not apply to the data submitted for Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know, said Bob Stephan, a former Homeland Security Department assistant secretary who was in charge of the federal government’s chemical facility anti-terrorism program from 2007-09.
“They are giving you incorrect information or incorrect rationale for not providing the data,” Stephan said.
Even when the information is available, it’s not always accurate. Years of lax oversight and scant enforcement have resulted in shoddy records. Hundreds of companies listed approximate or inaccurate amounts of dangerous chemicals, not just ammonium nitrate.
Wisconsin documents showed that C. Reiss Coal Co.’s facility had stored tons of ammonium nitrate in a facility in Sheboygan last year. But people would be hard-pressed to use that information when deciding where to buy a home or send their kids to school. That’s because state officials say the facility is inactive and should not have been on the list.
The fertilizer building that exploded in West had been there since 1962. As the years passed, a nursing home, school and apartment buildings sprung up nearby. Townspeople thought little of the facility; it was as common a sight in the farming community as a tractor on the road.
The company filed the required reports listing the hazardous chemicals on site. There’s no indication that the documents were incorrect. But the county’s emergency planners had not read them.