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Fearing the Worst 

Last week, as a city and as a nation, we remembered the attacks of Sept. 11. Now, the talk is of returning to "normal." That should not be our primary concern.

To be sure, life in Louisiana has achieved a welcome normality in some aspects. Two major local elections have passed. Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl were rousing successes. And many New Orleanians are eagerly anticipating Mayor-elect Ray Nagin's initiatives on regional economic development.

The average American's fear of terrorist attacks has diminished, partly because of increased security at transportation centers and public events, and partly because of the successes of American forces overseas. Furthermore, many Louisianians take comfort in the notion that this state lacks value as a target for suicidal "sleeper" agents.

We must not revel in false notions of irrelevancy. The Washington Post last week reported that a previously undisclosed study by the Army surgeon general estimates that up to 2.4 million people "could be killed or injured in a terrorist attack against a U.S. toxic chemical plant in a densely populated area." Louisiana's Chemical Corridor is among the three most densely populated in the nation, along with New Jersey and Texas ("The Worst That Could Happen," Sept. 18, 2001).

The Army surgeon general's assessment, dated Oct. 29, ranks attacks on toxic chemical plants and supply sites as a major threat -- second only to casualties resulting from biological weapons. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration says the Justice Department will not meet an Aug. 5 deadline for a report on the vulnerability of the chemical industry to terrorist attack because of "inadequate funding," according to the Post.

That's bad news for Louisiana. Stretching some 100 miles between Belle Chasse and St. Francisville, our Chemical Corridor contains dozens of petro-chemical plants adjacent to residential areas. At least 85 facilities in Louisiana store 100,000 pounds or more of "extremely hazardous" chemicals, according to a new report by the advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), which used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "[I]f the chlorine from even one tank car were released or blown up, the toxic gas could travel two miles in 10 minutes and remain lethal [for] 20 miles," USPIRG warns.

And one year before Sept. 11, the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board acknowledged that it stored large amounts of potentially deadly chlorine gas inside city limits, which if released could threaten up to 920,000 people.

It is an open secret that a suicidal bomber could turn a toxic chemical plant into a weapon of mass destruction. It is also known that Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta expressed interest in U.S. chemical plants during his flight school training exercises over Tennessee.

We believe the Louisiana chemical industry's post-Sept. 11 pronouncements of tightened security and closer ties with law enforcement and government regulators. But we are not willing to bet our safety and our environment on industrial self-policing. The chemical industry's history in Louisiana is checkered, and a recent legislative auditor's report charges that state Department of Environmental Quality enforcement efforts are, at best, suspect. The chemical industry for years has warned of the danger of its secrets falling into the hands of terrorists, but people who live within range of deadly toxic plumes also have the right to know how safe they are in the event of a terrorist attack or catastrophic accident.

"The Safe Hometowns Guide" (www.safehometowns.org), a new report by the Sierra Club and other environmental advocacy groups, concludes: "A public reassessment to protect our safety is urgently needed. We know from experience with the airline industry that leaving such issues to the private sector alone does not ensure public safety and security." A second report, released by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, serves as a guide for preventing chemical terrorism (www.pirg.org/reports).

Darryl Malek-Wiley, chair of the New Orleans chapter of the Sierra Club, says, "If we are serious about high security, we need to be reducing the risks of these plants as high-risk targets." To that end, he cites three common-sense strategies from the "Hometowns Guide":

· Require industry to substitute safer materials in their chemical processes. Example: after Sept. 11, a sewage treatment plant near Washington D.C. removed tons of toxic chemicals from its site. The chemicals were replaced with safer material.

· Curtail the storage of hazardous chemicals in high volumes.

· Increase "buffer zones" between toxic chemicals and homes.

The Louisiana Chemical Association has said its members are already working on safer chemicals and larger buffer zones, but it cites federal and state disclosure restrictions as a hurdle to releasing information. Industry also is wary of public discourse with environmentalists, given their adversarial history. Now is not the time for an impasse, however. Both sides must realize that their common enemies are terrorism and ignorance.

Finally, the Justice Department must get the money to finish assessing threats to our chemical plants. The report is mandated by the Clean Air Act -- and by the safety of thousands of Louisianians.

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