Lax security at our nation’s chemical plants may endanger the millions of Americans unlucky enough to live near them, but it’s been a boon for investigative journalism. It’s become practically commonplace for intrepid reporters to demonstrate the ease with which one can penetrate a dangerous facility. But after journalists like Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review started visiting plants in 2002, leaving his business card on storage tanks and bringing along 60 Minutes camera crews, I wondered: Could I still mosey onto a plant’s property and get close to chemicals that could kill thousands of people?
To find out, I enlisted the help of James Bryant, a tall, courtly, retired chemical engineer and executive who has become an industry critic in Delaware, home of DuPont. When Bryant was an executive for Standard Chlorine in the mid-1990s, he helped write the predecessor to the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care code, a self-policing program hailed as a national model by Department of Homeland Security officials and industry representatives. Marty Durbin, the ACC’s amiable chief lobbyist, told me, “The real-world impact is that our employees and the communities we reside in are much more secure and safer.” Bryant is less effusive. “It’s not worth a damn, because there’s no follow-up,” he says in his relaxed southern drawl.
Bryant takes me to DuPont’s Edge Moor plant, around the southern section of the Delaware River, near Wilmington. It’s an overcast October day, a few weeks after the passage of an industry-backed regulatory bill.
Fittingly, we’re driving a black Mercedes SUV like the ones in Hollywood action thrillers that come packed with black-masked terrorists. As a member of ACC, DuPont is presumably compliant with the self-assessment requirements of Responsible Care. In an e-mail, DuPont assured me that the company “has a 200-year heritage of safety
as a core value.” I plan to test this claim with the eyes
of a jihadist who’s willing to blow up chemical facilities with a rocket-propelled grenade—an RPG—or a bomb. Admittedly, I’d make an imperfect Islamic extremist. Not only am I a Jewish guy who doesn’t expect to have my way with seventy-two virgins in Paradise, I also have a back problem that would probably prevent me from lifting heavy weaponry. Still, I’m curious to see how easy it would be for fanatics in better shape to blow up
We arrive outside Edge Moor’s mesh fence. In 2005, Edge Moor reported to the Environmental Protection Agency the worst-case outcome of a terrorist attack on its aging facility; it estimated that more than 150,000 people who live and work within fourteen miles of the plant could be at risk of being injured or killed. The fence is interrupted only occasionally by a bolt lock at side entrances; long stretches are unburdened by a single security camera. Intermittently, we glimpse a No Trespassing sign, usually beyond the view of the guards at the main entrances. “Nobody’s watching,” Bryant says in a jaded tone. I photograph rail cars, towers, and storage tanks, feeling bolder as I realize no one is going to stop us.
We park across the street from what appear to be eight chlorine tank cars near two storage tanks the size of grain elevators. There’s a large gap in the fence where railroad tracks exit the plant, but I’m wary of walking through it—I’m pretty sure the Washington Monthly’s expense budget doesn’t cover bail and a lawyer. So I go back to the car, looking forlornly at the rail cars beckoning me with the promise of journalistic glory. As we pull away, I think about Carl Prine and Steve Kroft and all the others who’ve gone before me, exposing the chemical terror next door.
“Screw it,” I tell Bryant. “I’m going in.” I skulk across the street and, my heart pounding, dart inside the fence. I’m a few dozen yards from several vehicles that could be filled with enough chlorine to each kill 100,000 people in thirty minutes. The only barrier between me and the chance to unleash possible toxic catastrophe is a striped pole bearing a sign that reads Men at Work. Unlike Carl Prine, though, I don’t have the guts to leave my card on the tanks, or perch atop some of them waving, as he did in his January series, “Terror on the Tracks.”
Instead, I just take a few more photographs and return to the SUV. “I scared myself,” I tell Bryant. “It’s an old plant, and they don’t like to change things much,” he replies nonchalantly.
As we drive back, Bryant points out another DuPont site with chemical production or storage units on land jutting out into the river directly below the Delaware Bridge. “You can fire anywhere you want,” he observes. Fortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring along an RPG, but I fear there’s little to stop others who might be making just such deadly plans.
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Art Levine is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly.