Maryland is ahead of most states in trying to prevent terrorist attacks on plants that make dangerous chemicals, but more needs to be done on the federal level to make sure the industry and local governments have the tools to prevent a catastrophe, said a panel of experts that met in Towson yesterday.
Congress and the Bush administration are debating steps to more uniformly regulate the chemical industry, which has so far beefed up security under a voluntary industry program. The effort has particular resonance in Maryland, where more than 1 million residents live downwind from chemical facilities that make or stockpile chlorine and other chemicals that could cause mass casualties if scattered over a wide area.
"My priority is let's identify what's most dangerous, let's identify where it is and make sure we are monitoring that," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. "If al-Qaida was able to penetrate our defenses, where would they go?"
Ruppersberger gathered a panel of industry and law enforcement officials at Towson University yesterday to discuss security surrounding Maryland's $6 billion chemical industry, which employs about 14,000 statewide.
The state is home to an array of chemical makers, such as W.R. Grace & Co., which makes a variety of chemical catalysts, and FMC Corp., a maker of agricultural chemicals. The state's waterfront is lined with tank farms that store petroleum products and waste-water treatment plants that rely on huge volumes of chlorine to process waste.
Both the House and Senate are considering legislation to require security measures at such facilities.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, security was light at many Maryland facilities where chemicals are stored or produced. Some lacked even basic security measures, such as chain-link fences.
Since then, the nation's largest chemical manufacturers - including many in Maryland - have spent $2 billion training workers, installing new fencing and other security measures, according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that represents about 80 percent of the chemicals produced in the United States.
The council's member companies focused their spending on fencing, access control technology, employee background checks and process changes aimed at limiting the danger posed by a terrorist attack. But the voluntary program didn't cover the 20 percent of the industry that doesn't belong to the council.
"Does more need to be done?. Yes. We're not done," said Martin J. Durbin, managing director of security and operations for the chemistry council. "This isn't something we're ever going to be finished with, but are we safer today than we were? Absolutely."
Until last week, the Bush administration was satisfied with the industry's voluntary efforts. But that changed when new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a Senate committee that the administration would seek new federal standards that would apply to the entire industry.
The chemistry council embraced the creation of a uniform federal standard after states, including Maryland, began adopting their own regulations.
State officials are working on the final draft of legislation that will require companies to file a security plan with the Maryland Department of the Environment, among other steps. The department will work with companies to enhance security and conduct audits every five years to make sure companies are complying with the plans. The companies will pay $2,500 in annual fees to cover the cost of the program.
The law won't apply to companies in Baltimore, which has strict regulations of its own, or the waterfront, which is regulated by the Coast Guard. The regulations reflect how the state's role has changed in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
"We used to just issue permits," said Alan Williams, program manager of emergency response and planning for the state Department of the Environment. "Now we're in the security business."
Jeanette Glose Partlow, president of Maryland Chemical Co. Inc., agreed that the industry can do more. The family-owned Baltimore company, which distributes industrial chemicals, has increased spending on lighting, fencing, equipment and employee training.
"Is our country a target? Yes," she said. "That's not going to change anytime soon, so let's get smart about it."