From chlorine at the giant Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Southwest Washington to propane in a cavern near a Fairfax County neighborhood, highly dangerous substances are scattered throughout the District and 13 surrounding counties, posing a health threat if the chemicals leak in a plant accident.

According to federal, local and facility records, the Washington area has at least 607 manufacturers, warehouses, retail businesses and public facilities that use thousands of pounds of chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency considers "extremely hazardous." Some jurisdictions are better prepared than others to contain a major leak, according to the records and interviews.

The dangerous substances are in insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, preservatives, cleaners, solvents and batteries. Some are toxic, such as chlorine, ammonia and sulfur dioxide. Others are highly flammable, such as propane.

In the region this year, federal records show, about 200 accidents have occurred involving dangerous and less risky substances, ranging from everyday gasoline spills to the June 2 crash at the Springfield interchange of a tractor-trailer loaded with 17 tons of explosive black powder.

Montgomery County, with 177 chemical sites, leads the region, followed by Prince George's (86) and Anne Arundel (79) counties. Fairfax has the most sites in Northern Virginia, with 65. The District says it has three facilities. Comparisons are hard to make because some jurisdictions have more industry and Montgomery has a stricter standard for reporting that boosts its total.

The governments' hazardous materials response plans are public records, and The Washington Post reviewed them to determine the number of high-risk facilities in the region and whether government officials are prepared for a disaster.

Although government officials and facility owners said sites in the Washington area generally are safe, the chemical industry itself raised the specter of a terrorist attack in heated debates about how much information about local hazards should be available to the public over the Internet.

Of greater concern to some emergency preparedness officials is the threat from a malevolent employee. "You can't stop evil people from doing evil things," said Skip Elliott, director of hazardous materials for CSX Corp. railroads.

Federal law requires local and state governments to have a written, up-to-date plan that lists the most dangerous facilities in their jurisdictions, the highway and railroad routes that carry chemicals, and how emergency personnel would respond to a leak, fire or explosion. But plans prepared by the 14 D.C. area governments range from thorough, timely manuals in Northern Virginia to several incomplete, older plans in the Maryland suburbs and the District.

The District's new emergency preparedness director, Peter G. LaPorte, said he has ordered an overhaul of the city's plan after learning from a reporter that the current one does not comply with federal regulations.

"I plan on getting right after this," LaPorte said. Among other things, the city does not list every facility where chemical leaks could occur. The federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing and a Potomac Electric Power Co. power plant in Northeast are among the omissions.

On Oct. 1, an explosion and fire in the basement of the Commerce Department caused the release of small amounts of a cancer-causing liquid. It's unclear whether the agency meets the federal standards for listing dangerous chemicals.

Charles County's emergency preparedness officials warn that "most disasters will exceed our capabilities," reflecting their belief that no single jurisdiction can thoroughly plan for every possibility because chemical catastrophes are so rare. Instead, the county's emergency preparedness chief, Donald McGuire, called for a regional response team.

In fast-growing Howard County, the challenge is tracking new sites. "In all honesty, we haven't done a good job recently," said Brian Tiffany, the county's hazardous materials specialist, surrounded in his office by 20 notebooks listing dangerous facilities. "The books are so thick they're ready to explode."

The chances of a catastrophic chemical accident, such as the leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 2,000 people in 1984, are remote, government and industry officials said. Companies have spent millions of dollars on safe handling, and officials noted that most hazardous shipments arrive without incident.

Still, "to the public, 'chemical' is a dirty word. Until we change that very basic fact, we will remain defensive," Arthur R. Sigel, chairman of the Chemical Manufacturers Association board of directors, said at a recent industry conference.

Mike Sprinker, health and safety director for the International Chemical Workers Union, said: "There have been some real improvements in safety since Bhopal, but we can't be complacent. . . . There have been some chemical releases since then. The potential for a catastrophic release is still there."

Risks in Region

Some of the local sites catalogued by the EPA are obvious, such as Blue Plains, which treats the region's sewage with chlorine and other chemicals. But other, lesser-known facilities are near residential areas. Washington Gas Light Co. stores up to 50 million pounds of propane at an underground facility in west Springfield near four subdivisions where 8,000 people live. Colonial Circuits Inc., in Stafford County, makes circuit boards for the space shuttle and handles five highly dangerous chemicals, including ammonia. Across the street from Colonial is a Geico office building with 3,500 employees.

The crash of the truck hauling the explosive black powder exposed the region's vulnerabilities. No one was injured in the crash, but the agonizing incident shut the Capital Beltway-Shirley Highway intersection, an unprecedented 16-hour closure that paralyzed travel along the East Coast and led to evacuations of nearby residents. The driver was cited for reckless driving.

Documenting the number of trucks and rail cars carrying hazardous materials at any time is impossible; no rules require them to disclose their cargo as they pass through a community. But a recent George Mason University study estimated an average of 27 rail cars carry corrosives, gases and flammable liquids through Fairfax County each day. A U.S. Department of Transportation report said about 600 hazardous materials trucks a day cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

"A hazardous material release in the Northern Virginia area would have far-reaching effects," and "responders can anticipate clogged transportation routes," says Fairfax County's emergency response plan.

Numerous other high-risk facilities appear in county plans:

The Chesapeake Finished Metals plant in the Elkridge section of Howard County stores up to 300,000 pounds of solvents, paints, cleaners and corrosives that could burn the skin of hundreds of workers and residents near Route 100 if released.

Near the Nissan Pavilion in western Prince William County, a company that develops and manufactures rocket fuel, Atlantic Research Corp., has had two fires involving explosive materials in the past five years. The county plan cites a worst-case scenario in which fire would combine with a poisonous substance in a deadly cloud when a sold-out concert of 20,000 is ending.

From the CIA in McLean to the Bell Atlantic facility on Snickersville Pike in Loudoun County to the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Calvert County, thousands of pounds of sulfuric acid fill batteries that power computers and other equipment. The highly reactive substance emits toxic fumes when heated.

Chlorine is the substance that emergency personnel worry most about because of its prevalence and fast impact. As a gas, it is greenish-yellow and fatal if inhaled. Because tons of chlorine are used every day, every water-treatment plant in the region is considered extremely dangerous by the EPA.

Chlorine is brought into the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant in Northwest Washington in containers and stored in sealed buildings with systems that detect and neutralize leaks. At Blue Plains, the chlorine is shipped by rail cars and unloaded in a similar special building.

Nationally, an average of 60,000 chemical accidents occur a year--half at facilities and half on highways and railroads--which the Chemical Safety Board said "raises the question of how effective the federal government's current chemical safety system is in preventing chemical incidents." An average of 250 people a year die in those accidents, and the number is holding steady, the board said.

Melonie Collini, 40, doesn't have much faith in government or the chemical companies. She is one of thousands of northern Anne Arundel County residents who live close to chemical companies in south Baltimore. The latest serious incident near them was an Oct. 13, 1998, explosion at a Condea Vista plant that injured eight people, closed an interstate highway and sent up thick clouds. A chemical reactor overpressurized, releasing three substances, including hydrogen chloride.

"It's on our minds all the time," said Collini, who lives with her husband and daughter in the Brooklyn Heights section. "I don't think we know the full scale of the risk."

John Scholz, Anne Arundel County's fire battalion chief, said that while the county's hazardous materials unit "is prepared for anything," he worries most about a fire in which several substances mix. "Add a fire, and all bets are off," Scholz said.

Planning Behind Plans

Firefighters rely on their own response plans, independent of the federally required plan, to guide their actions. But they acknowledged that they should be keeping the federally mandated plan up to date.

Prince George's County's plan began with a cover letter from Parris N. Glendening, who hasn't been county executive since 1994. David McMillion, director of Maryland's Emergency Management Agency, said: "It's been two to three years since we really checked the plans. It's something we know we have to take care of."

There is no penalty for governments that do not keep plans current, though fines have been assessed against facility owners, including some in the D.C. area, who failed to report to the EPA.

"The law is well intentioned, but most jurisdictions just don't have the funds to do it," said Craig Walker Black, Prince George's County hazardous materials coordinator. Black is a one-man show, handling inspections and voluminous paperwork from companies in addition to responding to incidents. Fairfax County has two people to keep the plan current.

Three days after declaring in an interview that "our biggest threat is a transportation accident," Black closed the outer loop of the Beltway for two hours while crews cleaned up a bleach spill.

The Interstate 95 corridor south of Springfield is particularly hazardous, officials said, because of tank farms that store 2.5 million gallons of petroleum products close to the highway, a CSX rail line and the residential areas of Newington.

Getting water to an accident could be a problem, officials warn, because the sprouting of noise walls and concrete barriers along highways reduces access. Several thousand gallons of water a minute are needed to cool threatened chemical tanks or contain a fire.

Montgomery County officials said they also are uneasy about nine transmission pipelines that move natural gas, fuel oils and gasoline through the county between the Gulf Coast and the Northeast. "Even if there's an incident and you get the valves shut quickly, the pipeline could still release 400,000 to 500,000 gallons of material," said Robert Stephan, Montgomery's hazardous materials specialist. "Plus, you never know which commodity you'll get."

The real value of the federally required plan, some officials said, is the pressure it creates to prevent accidents. After three facilities reported to Alexandria that they were using large amounts of chlorine, city emergency preparedness officials persuaded them to switch to less harmful bleach, including at the Cameron Run wave pool. But not every jurisdiction is that aggressive.

"Things are going to go wrong," said Michael Neuhard, hazardous materials specialist for the Fairfax County fire department. "The plan is critical because it tells us whether we're prepared or not, whether the community understands what we're doing."

By the Numbers

An average of 60,000 chemical incidents occur each year in the United States.

From 1987 to 1996, in more than 600,000 incidents across the country, there were 2,565 deaths and 22,949 injuries. Of these, 333 deaths and 9,962 injuries occurred at fixed-site facilities.

From Jan. 1 to Aug 12, the District and 13 surrounding jurisdictions reported 166 chemical accidents.

Testing the Worst Case

The Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, which treats the area's sewage with chlorine and other chemicals, is one of many facilities that is required by federal law to file risk management plans in case of a chemical emergency. Facilities are asked to prepare a "worst-case scenario," regardless of the probability of occurrence.

Worst-case scenario: Assumes the sudden rupture of a fully loaded sulfur dioxide rail tank car, which instantly would release 90 tons of the chemical into the atmosphere.

Under such conditions, the potential impact zone would cover an area with a 15-mile radius from the release point. How the sulfur dioxide would travel depends on myriad conditions, such as prevailing winds.

Worst-case scenario assumes that no actions are taken to minimize the extent of the chemical release.

Sulfur dioxide

Description: Colorless gas with pungent odor.

Delivery: By 90-ton rail cars for gaseous or liquid withdrawal.

Plant uses: To remove chlorine from treated wastewater before discharge into the Potomac River.

Routes of exposure: Can affect the body if inhaled or in contact with the skin or eyes.

Effects of overexposure: As a gas, intensely irritating to the eyes, mucous membranes, skin and respiratory tract. May cause burning, tearing, coughing, chest tightness. Severe exposure may cause a person to stop breathing.

Facilities That Use Hazardous Chemicals

The Washington area has more than 600 facilities that use chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency deems "extremely hazardous." Federal law requires local governments to list facilities that store or use such chemicals, identify the hazardous substances, analyze risks to the surrounding community and develop emergency response plans in case of a spill or accident. Below are sites in the largest cities and counties.

Primer on Hazardous Chemicals

CHLORINE

Description: Amber liquid or greenish-yellow gas; strong odor.

Common uses: Pesticides, antifreeze, refrigerants, plastics, resins; as a bleaching agent; for purifying water; disinfecting

Effects of overexposure: Intensely irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. May cause tearing, runny nose, coughing, shortness of breath. At higher concentrations, can cause nausea, vomiting. Severe exposure can lead to death from suffocation. Can burn skin.

PROPANE

Description: Colorless, odorless gas (a foul odor usually is added).

Common uses: As fuel; as a solvent; used in desalinization of water.

Effects of overexposure: May cause dizziness, disorientation, vomiting. Greater exposure may cause unconsciousness and death. Contact with liquefied form can cause frostbite.

AMMONIA

Description: Colorless, pungent gas; can be liquid under pressure.

Common uses: Fertilizers; in photography; as a refrigerant; used as solvents in processing of textiles, leather, pulp, paper.

Effects of overexposure: Vapors are an irritant of the eyes, respiratory tract and skin. May cause burning, tearing, runny nose, coughing, chest pain, cessation of respiration. Can be fatal if inhaled. Liquid form will burn skin and eyes.

SULFURIC ACID

Description: Colorless to dark brown, oily, odorless liquid.

Common uses: Fertilizers, insecticides, explosives; pigments and dyes; as a component in batteries; pH control of water.

Effects of overexposure: Corrosive to all body tissues. Inhalation of vapor may cause serious lung damage. Contact with eyes may result in severe burns or total loss of vision. Fatal amount for an adult is a single teaspoon. Circulatory shock is often the immediate cause of death.

The District

Chlorine

Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant

McMillian Water Treatment Plant

Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant

Other chemicals

Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant

Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant

McMillian Water Treatment Plant

ALEXANDRIA

Ammonia

Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

Potomac Electric Power Co.

Sulfuric acid

Bell Atlantic (2 locations)

Ogden Martin Systems

Potomac Electric Power Co.

Other chemicals

Potomac Electric Power Co.

ARLINGTON

Sulfuric acid

AT&T Corp.

Bell Atlantic Corp. (2 locations)

C&P Telephone Co.

FAIRFAX

Ammonia

Accuprint Inc.

Canada Dry Potomac Corp.

Capitol Technigraphics Corp.

Capitol Technigraphics

Corbalis Water Treatment Plant

Crown Central Petroleum Corp.

Lorton Water Treatment Plant

NOVA Blue Inc.

Reprographic Technologies Inc.

Schirmer's LLC

Shenandoah's Pride Dairy

Washington Gas Light Co.

Sulfuric acid

Alexandria Metal Finishers Inc.

American Medical Laboratories Inc.

AT&T Corp.

Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems

Bell Atlantic Telephone (17 locations)

Boeing Information Services Inc.

Boeing N.A.I.

Cellular One

Central Intelligence Agency

General Services Administration

Lockheed Martin Data Center

Mobil Oil World Headquarters

National Imaging and Mapping Agency

National Reconnaissance Office

Ogden Martin Systems

Sprint Communications (4 locations)

U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Belvoir

U.S. Geological Survey

VISA International Service Association

Wash. Metro Area Transit Authority

Chlorine

Canada Dry Potomac Corp.

Colchester Public Service

Corbalis Water Treatment Plant

Lorton Water Treatment Plant

Propane

Washington Gas Light Co.

Other chemicals

Alexandria Metal Finishers Inc.

Amoco Oil Co.

American Medical Laboratories Inc.

Atlantic Research Corp.

CITGO Petroleum Corp.

Colchester Public Service

Dulles Airport Tank Farm

Emcon Fairfax Terminal

Exxon Co.

Gannett Offset Springfield

General Services Administration

Quarles Petroleum Inc.

Shell Oil Co.

SICPA Securink Corp.

Star Enterprise Sales Terminal

Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority

PRINCE GEORGE'S

Ammonia

Air Products and Chemicals Inc.

Airgas Midatlantic

Merchants Terminal Corp.

Murry's Steak Co.

Pepsi-Cola Bottlers of Washington

Roberts Oxygen Co.

Safeway Ice Cream

Safeway Inc.

Smithfield Packing Co.

Sulfuric acid

AT&T (5 locations)

Bell Atlantic (22 locations)

Bell Atlantic Mobile

Beretta USA Corp.

Brown Station Leachate Treatment Plant

C&P Telephone (2 locations)

Cellular One (2 locations)

EG&G Pressure Science Inc.

Electronic Data Systems Corp.

GE Americom -- Goddard Earth Station

Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Panda Brandywine

Pepco (7 locations)

Security Fence Supply Co.

Sprint Spectrum

Andrews Air Force Base

WMATA (2 locations)

WSSC

Chlorine

Air Products and Chemicals Inc.

Bowie State University Wastewater

Bowie Wastewater Treatment Plant

City of Bowie Water Plant

Maryland Environmental Service

MES -- Cheltenham Boys Village Water

Panda Brandywine

Andrews Air Force Base

Beltsville Agriculatural Research Center

Utilities Inc. of Maryland (2 locations)

WSSC (6 locations)

Propane

Maryland Clay Division

Pepco

Pepsi-Cola Bottlers of Washington

Roberts Oxygen Co.

Beltsville Agricultural Research Center

Other chemicals

Airgas Midatlantic

Andrews Air Force Base

AT&T Corp.

Bell Atlantic Corp.

Beltsville Agricultural Research Center

Bowie Wastewater Treatment Plant

EG&G Pressure Science Inc.

Graphic Systems Inc.

GTS Duratek Corp.

Loral Advanced Technology Labs

Maryland Environmental Service

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Panda Brandywine

Pepco

Pepsi-Cola Bottlers of Washington

Printers II Inc.

R&D Cross Inc.

Roberts Oxygen Co.

Smithsonian Institution (2 locations)

Utilities Inc. of Maryland (2 locations)

Valley Typsetting

WMATA (2 locations)

WSSC (4 locations)

MONTGOMERY*

Ammonia

McCormick Paint Works Co.

Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola

Ridgway's

Chlorine

Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant

Poolesville Wastewater Trtmt. Plant

Rockville Water Treatment Plant

WSSC Potomac Water Filtration Plant

WSSC Wastewater Station (3 locations)

Propane

Roof Center Inc.

Suburban Propane

Zimmerman's Home Center

Sulfuric acid

Bell Atlantic (18 locations)

Pepco (12 locations)

Other chemicals

A.B. Veirs & Sons Inc.

Abercrombie & Co.

Amato Industries Inc.

Armed Forces Radiobiology Research. Inst. (2 locations)

Army Research Laboratory

AT&T Corp.

Betco Block & Products Inc.

Bethesda Maintenance Depot

Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad

BLC Excavating Co.

Bolger Center for Leadership Dev.

Browning Ferris Industries Inc.

Builders Design and Leasing Inc.

Burning Tree Club

Burtonsville Fuel Co.

C.W. Wright Construction Co.

Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Dept.

Canada Dry Potomac Corp.

Chesapeake Petroleum & Supply

Combustioneer Corp.

Concrete General Inc.

Congressional Oldsmobile

Contractors Disposal Service

Cryonix Freezer Repository

Crystal Ford

Damascus Fuel Co.

Davey Tree & Lawn Care

Dickerson Compost Facility

Dow Jones & Co.

Electro Mechanical Design Service

EU Service

Federal Emergency Mgmt. Agency

Federal Express

Francis O. Day Co.

G.D. Armstrong Co.

G. E. Information Services

G.L. Cornell Co.

Gaithersburg Volunteer Fire Dept.

Georgetown Preparatory School

Giant Food Bakery

Gustin Gardens Tree Service

Herb Gordan Nissan

Hughes Network Systems

IBM Corp.

Irradiation Industries Inc.

J.T. Patton & Sons Turf Farms

James L. Muscatello Inc.

Kensington Volunteer Fire Department

LaFarge Southlawn Astec Blacktop

LaFarge/Rockville Ready-Mix

Laytonsville Volunteer Fire Department

Little Bennett Regional Park

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems

M & M Welding & Fabricators

Mattos Inc.

McCormick Paint Works Co.

McKesson Bioservices

Maryland State Highway Admin.

Merit Concrete

Metropolitan Fleet & Tire Service

Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola

Montgomery Scrap Corp.

National Imagery and Mapping Agency

National Inst. of Standards & Tech.

National Naval Medical Center

(2 locations)

Naval Medical Research Institute

Needwood Golf Course

Neutron Products

NIH Animal Center

NIH Consolidated Warehouse

Ogden Martin Mont. Co. Transfer Station

OMS of Mont. -- Resource Recovery

Orbital Sciences Corp.

Ourisman Honda Inc.

Pepsi Distribution Center

Pleasant Excavating Co.

Poolesville Wastewater

ProtoCircuitsInc.

Public Works Operations

Racal Communications Inc.

Redland/Genstar Southlawn Astec Blacktop Plant

Redland/Genstar Rockville Ready-Mix

Ridgway's

Roberts Oxygen Co.

Rock Creek Regional Park

Rockville Crushed Stone Inc.

Rockville Fuel & Feed Co.

Rockville Vol. Fire Dept. (4 locations)

Rockville Water Treatment

Ruppert Landscape Co.

Ryder Truck Rental

Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Dept.

Security Storage Co. (2 locations)

Sheehy Ford

Shemin Nurseries Inc.

Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Dept.

Sligo Golf Course

Southern States

Spectra Inc.

Steel Products Inc.

Suburban Propane

Summit Hall Turf Farm Inc.

Sunbelt Rentals Inc.

Telecommunications Techniques

BartleyCorp.

RoofCenterInc.

Titus Trash Service

Trugreen-Chemlawn Products

Uniformed Svcs. Univ. of Health Sci.

United Parcel Service

USA Waste of Maryland

VOB Auto Sales

WABCO Railway Electronics

Walter Reed Army Med. Ctr. (2 locations)

Washington Adventist Hospital

Washington Gas (2 locations)

Waste Management of Mont. Co.

Willard Packaging Co.

WMATA (4 locations)

WSSC (9 locations)

Zimmerman's Home Center

*Montgomery County has its own county-specific chemical threshold that is more sensitive than the federal government's. As a result, more facilities here are classified as having extremely hazardous chemicals than in other counties.

SOURCES: Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, National Response Center

Hazardous Chemicals in the Outer Counties

Stories and detailed maps showing the locations of hazardous chemicals in other area jurisdictions will appear this week.

Today

Southern Maryland Extra

Prince William Extra

Loudoun Extra

Wednesday

Prince George's Extra

Thursday

Alexandria Weekly

Anne Arundel Weekly

Arlington Weekly

Howard Weekly

CAPTION: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators unload highly explosive black powder from an overturned truck near Springfield in June.