South Baltimore's heavily industrial Fairfield peninsula has always seen plenty of out-of-town visitors: ship captains bringing in cars, truck drivers carrying oil, railroad engineers taking out chemicals.
And now, the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the past 18 months, CIA operatives - along with intelligence analysts from the Defense Department, the armed services and the National Security Agency - have become quiet, regular visitors to the FMC Corp. chemical plant here. Their mission is to learn more about chemical plants and how facilities designed to produce agricultural pesticides might be converted to make chemical and biological weapons by countries such as Iraq and India.
"We only know what we've been told," says FMC responsible care coordinator Gene Reynolds, who instructs the visitors. "And that is that the CIA wanted a functioning, state-of-the-art chemical plant close to Washington that could give them some guidance about what they might see in rogue states."
These daylong visits - there have been at least four so far, with another one scheduled Wednesday - bring home to Baltimore what has long seemed like a distant, geopolitical concern: the use of chemical weapons against civilians as an instrument of terror. The CIA's presence also highlights the American intelligence community's lack of knowledge on the subject, federal officials concede.
The trips to Baltimore are typically scheduled for the first day of a two-week training program in the identification of chemical and biological weapons. Many of the visitors to FMC are people
charged with determining - through photographs or espionage - whether foreign plants are being used to make such weapons. And most have never seen a chemical plant up close before.
"There's been more demand for this training," says Tom Crispell, a CIA spokesman, "because weapons of mass destruction have become a very high priority of our government."
Even as the intelligence community has made its visits to FMC, the 92-acre plant has come under public criticism for two industrial accidents in the past 20 months. The more recent of the two, the
overheating of a pesticide mixture May 15, has been blamed for causing stinging eyes, throats and nosebleeds among children in nearby Wagner's Point, whose residents are seeking a government buyout of their homes.
"FMC's problems have helped make our point that this is a dangerous place to live," says Doris McGuigan, a South Baltimore resident and an environmental activist.
But state environmental officials - and executives from Maryland's chemical manufacturers - say the accidents left a misleading impression of the company's record. Better, they say, to pay attention to FMC's willingness to help the government, an example of what they describe as the herbicide maker's leadership role in chemical safety. "FMC has a good record," says Bill Paul, a division chief in the Maryland Department of Environment's Air and Radiation Management Administration.
"In terms of safety and emergency response," adds David L. Mahler, environmental manager at the CONDEA Vista plant in Fairfield, "FMC is way out in front of the rest of the industry."
Some critics have argued that state and federal environmental officials are sanguine about FMC because so many government agencies depend on the company for training and emergency expertise. The MDE's 40-hour course to teach emergency response to chemical spills - the course is called Hazwoper - takes place at FMC. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's summer institute for science teachers makes regular visits to the plant.
And in the case of chemical emergencies in Maryland, fire departments and state officials frequently page two FMC officials with firefighting experience - senior environmental engineer C.B. "Buzz" Melton and Reynolds - for assistance.
"We consult Buzzy and Gene a lot," says Alan Williams, chief of the MDE's emergency response division. "We had several pesticide fires on the Eastern Shore in June, and they helped. You can call them from a scene in the middle of the night, and they'll come."
The team of Melton and Reynolds is a match of opposites. Melton, 45, a retired battalion chief in the Baltimore City Fire Department, is irrepressible, full of jokes and stories about officials' overreaction to chemical spills - a malady he calls "hazmat hysteria."
Reynolds, 65, is a cooler head, but no less aggressive about safety. A volunteer member of the Baltimore County Fire Department, he carries turnout gear in his car at all times and responds to about 30 hazardous material accidents a year.
"Buzzy is a character," says Reynolds, "but I like working with him. It's never boring. If it was, I would have retired years ago."
Melton and Reynolds have instructed the CIA and intelligence personnel on their visits to FMC. In the morning, Melton teaches a class in a conference room, during which he advises the analysts to remain calm and cautious in their assessments. "It's an introduction to the chemical industry," says Melton. "And we also discuss how quickly a plant can turn agricultural products into chemical weapons."
During one visit, an intelligence official asked Melton: "If terrorists were toB go up the Chesapeake Bay in a submarine, taxi up to your plant, come ashore in scuba gear and tie up your plant with small explosives and take it over, where would they go to wreak the most havoc on the citizens of Baltimore?" Melton said the biggest threat would be a site outside FMC; he asked that his specific answer not be disclosed.
'A little shocked'
In the afternoon, Reynolds usually takes the intelligence analysts on a tour of the plant, giving them specific tips on how to handle chemicals safely and how to tell whether the plant is making weapons.
The content of the waste streams and the height of the distillation towers offer clues.
"I've found it interesting how little the intelligence people who come to us know, even when they're working this area," Reynolds says. "I'm a little shocked that so many do not know dTC what a chemical plant looks like until they see our facility."
Most local residents are ignorant, too, of the intelligence community's visits, though word has leaked out through company employees. A rare public disclosure appears in the minutes of the May 28 meeting of Baltimore City's Local Emergency Planning Committee. A paragraph on the third page reads: "Gene Reynolds stated that on May 22, 1998, the CIA would be making a tour of FMC since it is a facility that has the capabilities of making weapons of mass destruction."
That sentence spooked Rose Hindla, head of the community association in Wagner's Point, when she first heard about it, but FMC officials quickly reassured her. "I understand now," Hindla says. "But it doesn't make you feel safe living down here."
Pub date: 8/16/98