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The Worst That Could Happen 

Emergency experts, industry analysts and environmentalists consider the threat to Louisiana chemical plants and other local sites.

The morning of Sept. 11 found Terry Tullier, interim director of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) and deputy chief of the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD), at Al Lovas' barbershop in his native Algiers.

For the past six weeks, the 56-year-old Tullier, backed by a federal grant proposal, had been the only New Orleans official talking publicly about preparing for a terrorist attack. On Tuesday, it was time to act.

"I was sitting in the barber's chair about 9 a.m. ... when I got the call," says Tullier, a tall, wiry, 34-year NOFD veteran with steel gray hair. Tullier now had to think the unthinkable. Was New Orleans also a target? If so, was the city prepared to handle mass casualties from a terrorist attack?

Just six weeks ago, Tullier's office had placed advertisements in The Times-Picayune, seeking bidders for a $600,000 federally funded contract to "develop and implement a Metropolitan Medical Response System to terrorism." The city wanted a private contractor to coordinate the city's medical response following a terrorist attack with chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons. Three potential contractors had submitted bids.

In fact, Tullier was scheduled to meet with top city health and fire officials in his office at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, to review the proposals and make a final recommendation to Mayor Morial. Now, sitting in the barber's chair, Tullier knew that tomorrow was no longer promised. If anything happened, he would have to direct the city's emergency response to its first assault by a foreign foe since British troops were defeated at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

The magnitude of the moment did not overwhelm Tullier's barber, who offered to blow-dry his hair before he left the shop. Tullier recalls his reply: "You just get this sheet off of me so I can get back into work for you." He then hurried across the Crescent City Connection to City Hall.

The ninth floor of the city's Emergency Operations Center was abuzz with fire and other emergency officials. But Louisiana's most recognized leaders were out of state. Gov. Mike Foster was at a convention of Southern governors in Kentucky. Mayor Marc Morial was in Washington D.C. for a political fundraiser. And Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee was touring China.

By 9:30 a.m. the Louis Armstrong International Airport had closed.

Soon, New Orleans' tallest skyscraper -- 50-story One Shell Square -- was also shuttered. Other downtown office buildings began to empty, and the Louisiana Superdome was sealed off.

Tullier and Chief Administrative Officer Cedric Grant met in a City Hall corridor that day. Tullier says they talked about the terrorism response grant and security concerns for several nationally recognized upcoming events in New Orleans: the Sugar Bowl, the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras.

Louisiana's frantic Tuesday preparations for widespread attacks extended from New Orleans downriver to the Gulf of Mexico, and upriver to Baton Rouge. Foster, returning to the state capitol with his staff by a rental van, opined that Louisiana's Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) and the state Capitol might also be prime targets for terror. LOOP, the nation's largest importer of crude oil, barred the off-loading of crude from incoming tankers. And Entergy Corp. intensified security at the Waterford III nuclear power plant in St. Charles Parish.

Another key concern: the state's Chemical Corridor, which stretches some 100 miles between Belle Chasse and St. Francisville. Along with New Jersey and Texas, Louisiana's Chemical Corridor is among the most densely populated in the nation. Dozens of petro-chemical plants housing deadly gases dot both sides of the Mississippi River. An accidental release of chlorine, ammonia or phosgene gas from any one plant is frightening enough. But multiple attacks on multiple industrial sites storing tons of toxic gases would spell catastrophe for the entire region.

State Police and local parish sheriffs contacted petrochemical and pipeline companies that could be targeted by terrorists. Extra private security rushed to guard the gates of petro-chemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. All of the state's 19 refineries were also placed on alert.

Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, which represents 70 chemical companies -- two thirds of which are in the Corridor -- issued a terse response to all media inquiries: "Security has been heightened at Louisiana petro-chemical plants. For obvious reasons, the less said the better."

Huddled in the OEP at City Hall, Tullier and fellow emergency officials weighed their options. New Orleans is surrounded by water: how should the city prepare for a waterborne terrorist assault?

"We brought in the United States Coast Guard and the (New Orleans) port authority very early on," Tullier says. "But quite frankly, I don't know how you guard against some cuckoo who has decided in his own mind that this would be a noble and holy thing to do."

Fire Chief Warren McDaniels says his firefighters have taken advantage of training and funds for equipment provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare for a terrorist strike. "Terrorism has been on the front pages for quite some time," he says. "We're prepared for building collapse, confined-space rescue, and biological attacks; we do have some capability there.

"We in New Orleans are in pretty good shape since the tank car fire of 1987," adds McDaniel, a 31-year NOFD veteran.

The September 1987 blaze was the New Orleans area's biggest chemical fire in modern times, fire officials say. Some 19,000 Gentilly-area residents were evacuated for three days after a butadiene tank car spilled, ignited and exploded near Interstate 10 at Interstate 610, shutting down sections of both roadways. The fire burned for several days. The blaze continued until the FBI told fire officials they would have to extinguish the blaze or federal officials would cancel a three-day visit by Pope John Paul II to the city.

Firefighters suppressed the fire, and the Pope's visit continued as planned. No one was killed in the blaze, but some residents complained of respiratory ailments and other health problems afterwards. Inevitable litigation resulted in a controversial billion-dollar Civil Court jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs.

Shortly thereafter, the city and the NOFD formed a hazardous materials squad (Haz-Mat), which is manned around the clock and supplied with modern equipment.

"Our Haz-Mat people are well-trained, but we would like to have more people on that team," says McDaniels, who was deputy chief during the '87 tank car fire. Currently, there are three specially trained firefighters on each Haz-Mat platoon, with other special fire units also backing up the squad. McDaniels wants five on each watch, but adds he realizes the limitations of city finances.

In the event of a chemical fire, NOFD uses a computer plume modeling system -- tied to a weather station -- to determine what areas of the city need to be evacuated, based on wind direction and the amount of toxic release.

"If we can determine how much of a [toxic] release has occurred and at what rate, we can determine what the plume-modeling is and how far ... we need to evacuate," McDaniels adds. "Evacuation is no small task, obviously. ... But I think we're in pretty good shape."

Nevertheless, while New Orleanians have long been briefed on how to prepare or evacuate for an approaching hurricane, there is fear in some quarters that most citizens may not be familiar with the basic steps to take in the event of a deadly chemical plume. Especially for a city along Chemical Corridor.

Of all the sites in Louisiana, the Chemical Corridor is among the most likely local targets for potential terrorist attacks, says Andrea Talentino, a Tulane University professor who has studied terrorism for the last four years and teaches classes on covert operations.

"That is probably the smartest thing they could do if they were trying to get some kind of chemical effect," she says. "I wouldn't be concerned too much about most places in Louisiana, except for things like the chemical factories and the oil port."

But the Chemical Corridor's heavy industry outside New Orleans is not the only potential source of a deadly plume. Four city Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB) water purification and sewerage treatment plants often house large amounts of potentially deadly chlorine gas.

The release of the toxic chemical during unfavorable winds poses a deadly threat to 920,000 people, the S&WB acknowledged in a "worst-case scenario" filed more than a year ago in compliance with federal environmental "Right to Know" legislation.

The four storage sites include the sprawling East Bank or Carrollton water purification plant at 8800 S. Claiborne Ave., overlooking the New Orleans Recreation Department's popular Harrell playground.

Chlorine is also stored at the East Bank sewage treatment plant at the Orleans/St. Bernard line on Florida Avenue. The toxic chemicals are essential for the West Bank water treatment at Algiers and the sewage treatment plant in Lower Coast Algiers.

The Board has separate plans to respond to acts of terrorism and natural disasters. "We increased security at all S&WB facilities Tuesday, including blocking entrances with vehicles," S&WB spokesperson Joe Puglia says.

S&WB operations come under the OEP during hurricane or flood or drainage emergency. And the Board also takes certain internal precautions for the protection of employees.

"There is a procedure in place in case of any kind of leak of chlorine gases. It is part of their security plan," Puglia says. In the event of a toxic release, the Board notifies the fire department's hazardous materials team and the city OEP.

The last time the Board reported an accidental toxic release was about a year and half ago, when chlorine escaped from the leaky valve of a railroad tank car stored on tracks near Oak Street and Leake Avenue. (A water intake building on the Orleans/Jefferson Parish line does not contain chlorine, Puglia says.)

Puglia says the S&WB's worst case scenario or risk-management plans were filed on time last year with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In a board press release dated Jan. 24, 2000 and ads that appeared the same month in the classified sections of The Times-Picayune, all comers were offered information on "emergency preparedness, emergency response, and chemical risks associated with materials stored and used" at S&WB plants. The S&WB's worst-case scenario: a tank car filled with chlorine gas emptying out in 30 seconds.

"Very few people in the public showed up and no media that I recall," Puglia says.

Darryl Malek-Wiley doesn't carry a gas mask. However, the veteran chair of the New Orleans Group Sierra Club does keep a book in the glove compartment of his car -- a book published by the state Department of Transportation listing state evacuation routes and the distance needed to evacuate from chemical spills.

He also has become familiar with the identifying numbers of deadly chemicals carried by trucks and rail tank cars.

"I live in Uptown," he explains. Every once in a while, a rail car full of chlorine goes up to the water treatment facility at the Sewerage & Water Board's Carrollton plant. "If one of those [tank cars] ever springs a leak, we're looking at serious problems. Chlorine impacts the breathing system real quickly."

The emergency response to an airborne chemical accident -- favored by both city officials and industry -- is known as "shelter in place." The response, according to the state Office of Emergency Preparedness Web site (www.loep.state.la.us.), essentially calls on citizens to stay indoors until officials say it's safe to leave. "In many cases, 'shelter in place' is better than trying to have everyone evacuate at once and running into the streets," says Chief McDaniels.

Local chemical spills are addressed by a long-standing emergency planning committee, whose members include shippers and other transporters of chemicals as well as area chemical manufacturers, McDaniels said. But the chief acknowledges most residents are not familiar with "shelter in place." Tullier says the OEP is working on an emergency phone system, which would automatically call and warn residents of a chemical plume in an affected area.

But skeptical environmentalists call the emergency concept "die in place." Says Malek-Wiley: "Most of the houses in New Orleans are not airtight. If we have a serious enough cloud, it's going to get into the house. The possibilities are catastrophic."

Paul Templet, professor of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University and a former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality (1988-92) agrees. "If you have a plume of chlorine and it surrounds your house, I think you're gone," Templet says. "And there's no way to outrun it, because you are not going to get enough warning. ... You can get in the shower and hope that the water will strip some of the chemicals out of the air, but if it's really concentrated stuff that's not going to save you."

Of all the chemicals manufactured in Louisiana, and transported statewide by truck, rail, barge, ship and pipelines, the threat of chlorine and ammonia bother Templet the most.

"If I was living near one of these plants, I would find a way to move," he says. "If you can't move, find a self-contained breathing apparatus."

Both environmentalists insist Louisiana has been lucky to escape a major chemical catastrophe, so far. "Officials are aware of hurricanes a lot, so we probably get an 'A' to a 'B' on hurricane preparation. With chemical accident spills, we get 'D' to an 'F' for awareness and preparation in the city of New Orleans."

Officials in both St. Charles and St. James parishes have used federally funded warning systems and other safeguards required for the Waterford III nuclear plant at Taft to address chemical accidents. Industry and state DEQ officials have repeatedly pointed to their commitment to public safety, amid plunging pollution reports. But skeptical environmentalists note the figures are based on industry self-reports and remain wary over Foster's DEQ, which they perceive as coddling polluters.

Last March, two national environmental groups -- Greenpeace and the Community Right to Know -- published the disaster scenarios for 40 different facilities in the Chemical Corridor (www.greenpeaceusa.org). Based on self-reports by the chemical industry, the data shows that more than 1 million people are at risk from only one worst-case scenario accident.

The chemical industry lobbied Congress successfully in 1999 to restrict public access to the reports, arguing terrorists could use the information to attack the United States. Until last Tuesday, Louisiana environmentalists either discounted or dismissed industry objections as an excuse to cover up pollution.

If industry officials feel vindicated in any way by last week's terrorist strikes, they are not gloating. Meanwhile, some environmentalists appear ready to give fresh credence to industry concern over threats of terrorism.

"I think a lot of things will have to be seen in a new light," says Malek-Wiley. Still, he adds: "The chemical companies have always said this information should not be public because of possible terrorist attacks. That response leaves the people who live around the plant in the dark of possible accidents at the plants. And that is just as valid a concern, with the number of accidents we have had in Louisiana in the past and the types of chemicals we are dealing with. ...

"We don't want make these situations become more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But the people who live near rail lines or roads or waterways where these tremendous amounts of hazardous materials are transported need to have an understanding of the possible risk of living where they are living. They need to make an informed decision if they want to move."

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Sept. 19, Terry Tullier is expected to represent New Orleans at a three-day conference at Seattle on weapons of mass destruction.

"It's a timely issue," he said last Tuesday. "We never realized how timely it was until today."

click to enlarge Among the potential sources of a deadly chemical plume is the sprawling East Bank or Carrollton water purification plant at 8800 S. Claiborne Ave., overlooking the New Orleans Recreation Department's popular Harrell playground. The plant stores chlorine, used for water treatment. - TRACIE MORRIS
  • Tracie Morris
  • Among the potential sources of a deadly chemical plume is the sprawling East Bank or Carrollton water purification plant at 8800 S. Claiborne Ave., overlooking the New Orleans Recreation Department's popular Harrell playground. The plant stores chlorine, used for water treatment.
click to enlarge For the past six weeks, the only New Orleans official talking publicly about preparing for a terrorist attack has been Terry Tullier, interim director of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness and deputy chief of the New Orleans Fire Department.
  • For the past six weeks, the only New Orleans official talking publicly about preparing for a terrorist attack has been Terry Tullier, interim director of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness and deputy chief of the New Orleans Fire Department.
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