Howard County has at least 44 facilities that handle chemicals so dangerous they could kill or injure hundreds of people if there were a major leak or fire, according to county records.

The facilities include manufacturers, warehouses, retail businesses and public facilities that use chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency has put on an "extremely hazardous" list.

The EPA list was developed as part of a program to help local governments identify chemical risks in their communities and to work with the facilities to lower the chances of a catastrophe. The local 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.

In all, there are 607 such facilities in the Washington area; Howard County's 44 sites rank fifth after Montgomery County, with 177 sites; Prince George's County, with 86 sites; and Anne Arundel County, with 79; and Virginia's Fairfax County, with 65. Comparisons are hard to make, because some counties have more industry than others and Montgomery has a stricter standard for reporting that boosts its overall total.

The plants store and use such materials as chlorine, sulfuric acid and ammonia, all of which can be fatal even in small amounts.

After The Post requested Howard's plan, officials had to pull together the records because the county's response plan was not up to date. Unlike counties such as Montgomery, Howard has one firefighter assigned to keep records current and he acknowledged it is hard to assemble the information every year as required by federal law.

"It is cumbersome to administer," said Lt. Brian Tiffany, adding that the county is prepared for many of the incidents that could occur. County officials acknowledge they lack the personnel to handle some types of serious incidents such as a chemical leak; outside expertise may be called in for that. But local emergency personnel would have to deal with the incident until help arrived.

"Assistance is available from the state, federal and private sectors. However, these response times may be longer than desirable," the Howard emergency-response plan says.

In addition to the risk posed by the permanent facilities, county residents also face the threat of a random accident involving hazardous materials on Howard's major highways and CSX railroad tracks, including Interstates 70 and 95 and U.S. Routes 1, 29 and 40. Hundreds of trucks carrying dangerous cargo travel on those highways every day.

The Chesapeake Finished Metals Inc. plant at Elkridge, near Route 100 and CSX tracks, is of special concern, according to the plan.

The facility uses thousands of pounds of sulfuric acid--a corrosive-- and cleaners, paints, solvents and other acids. County officials are satisfied with the company's efforts to minimize an accident, but they warn "the presence of large quantities of hazardous chemicals throughout the facility makes the possibility of an incident high."

James Lyons, who is listed as Chesapeake's plant operator, did not respond to three messages left at his office seeking comment.

For more on the region's chemical threat, visit The Post on the Web at www.washingtonpost.com/metro

Hazardous Chemicals in Howard

Federal law requires local governments to maintain a list of facilities that store or use dangerous chemicals. Each jurisdiction must identify hazardous substances, analyze the risk these substances could pose to the surrounding community and develop emergency response plans in the case of a spill or accident. The map at right shows facilities within the county that have reported dangerous chemicals.

AMMONIA

Baltimore Aircoil

Grace Davison

GTS Duratek

Marriott Distribution Center

Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers

Merchants Terminal Corp.

MG Industries

Nestle Ice Cream

Northrop Grumman

SULFURIC ACID

Allied Signal Microelectronics and Technology

AT&T

Bell Atlantic Mobile

Bell Atlantic Inc.

Elite Spice Inc.

GTCO Corp.

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers

Moore Business Forms

Nestle Ice Cream

Northrop Grumman

Pace Inc.

Panasonic Product Renewal Center

Sprint Relay Switch

Tate Access Floors

ZEP Manufacturing Co.

CHLORINE

MG Industries

Holiday Mobile Estates Wastewater

PROPANE

Bay State Liquid Nitrogen

MG Industries

Owens Corning

OTHER CHEMICALS

Allied Signal Microelectronics and Technology

Bay State Liquid Nitrogen

Bendix Engineering

Carvel Ice Cream

Columbia Gas Transmission Corp.

Chesapeake Finished Metals

Chicago Metallic Corp.

Elite Spice Inc.

Fisher Scientific

Flint Ink Corp.

Giant Food

Greatbatch-Hittman

GTS Duratek

Interplastic Distribution Corp.

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Lee's Gas Supplies

Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant

Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers

Niro Inc.

Northrop Grumman

Pace Inc.

Standard Medical Imaging Inc.

Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp.

Waste Management of Maryland

Westvaco Corp.

W.R. Grace & Co.

SOURCE: County hazardous materials response plan