The out-of-town pilot who landed at the Copperhill, Tenn., airport called himself "Mo" and asked a lot of questions. He was particularly interested in a chemical plant he had just flown over: What kind of chemicals are in those massive storage tanks?
Danny Whitener, a salvage-car dealer, said he remembers that day in March as clearly as he remembers the pilot's face. Today, he believes -- and has told the FBI -- that the man was Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Whitener, 48, said he told the pilot that the tanks were empty. But Whitener was dead wrong. In fact, as much as 250 tons of sulfur dioxide remained in the tanks of the Intertrade Holdings specialty chemical plant. If those chemicals had been released, as many as 60,000 people who live within reach of the ensuing vapor cloud could have faced death or serious injury, according to the plant's worst-case estimate.
"Lord have mercy, once you drive a plane into it, I don't know anything in the world that could sustain that!" said Jim Hedrick, co-owner of Growth Management Services Inc., which owns and manages the plant.
Whether Atta was actually in eastern Tennessee -- the FBI said it has received two reports that he was but hasn't confirmed them -- may never be known, but the potential for catastrophe remains.
Since Sept. 11, federal officials have quietly warned the chemical industry that terrorist-launched attacks could turn hazardous-materials plants into weapons of mass destruction.
District officials were so concerned about the threat that, six weeks after the September attacks, they quickly substituted a safer chemical for the deadly chlorine gas stored in 90-ton rail cars at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant. A rupture of just one rail car could have put 1.7 million people at risk in the Washington area.
At least 123 plants each keep amounts of toxic chemicals that, if released, could form deadly vapor clouds that would put more than 1 million people in danger, according to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis. More than 700 plants could put at least 100,000 people at risk, and more than 3,000 facilities have at least 10,000 people nearby.
Yet there is no federal counterterrorism security standard for chemical plants or refineries. And there is no way to assure citizens that chemical and oil companies are taking adequate precautions. Instead, the EPA is counting on the industry to take the necessary precautions voluntarily, no matter the cost.
"Certainly, the industry has a very powerful incentive to do the right thing," said Bob Bostock, assistant EPA administrator for homeland security. "It ought to be their worst nightmare that their facility would be target of a terrorist act because they did not meet their responsibility to the community."
The American Chemistry Council, an Arlington-based trade group that represents firms such as Dow Chemical Co., E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. and ExxonMobil Corp., said its members have increased security and stepped up employee background checks since Sept. 11. "Our industry has gotten the message and is working hard to make sure that our facilities are safer than ever before," said Fred Webber, the council's president.
But labor union officials, citizen groups and conservationists say that the changes are superficial and inconsistent and leave plants vulnerable to attack, particularly thousands of smaller and medium-sized plants.
"The line was that voluntary initiatives were enough," said Paul Orum, coordinator of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know. "The line I heard was that a worst-case release or explosion was so unlikely that it wasn't worth planning for. After Sept. 11, it's clear that it is."
The Justice Department in 2000 was supposed to have produced a report about the vulnerability of plants and transported chemicals; a watered-down version is more than a year overdue. A Justice Department official blamed the delays on funding disputes.
Still, in assessing the general terrorist risk to plants, the Justice Department determined last year that the threat was "both real and credible" and could be more serious than attacks on nuclear power plants, which undergo regular security assessments by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"The ubiquitousness of industrial facilities possessing toxic chemicals and their proximity to population centers also make them attractive targets," the Justice Department concluded.
The FBI was so concerned about chemical plants in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that the facilities were among the first to be shown lists of suspected terrorists, government and industry officials said. One senior EPA official said he remains concerned that members of "sleeper" terrorist cells might be working in chemical plants.
A review of selected EPA documents describes dozens of deadly possibilities:
* A suburban California chemical plant routinely loads chlorine into 90-ton railroad cars that, if ruptured, could poison more than 4 million people in Orange and Los Angeles counties, depending on wind speed, direction and the ambient temperature.
* A Philadelphia refinery keeps 400,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride that could asphyxiate nearly 4 million nearby residents.
* A South Kearny, N.J., chemical company's 180,000 pounds of chlorine or sulfur dioxide could form a cloud that could threaten 12 million people.
* The West Virginia sister plant of the infamous Union Carbide Corp. factory in Bhopal, India, keeps up to 200,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate that could emit a toxic fog over 60,000 people near Charleston.
* The Atofina Chemicals Inc. plant outside Detroit projects that a rupture of one of its 90-ton rail cars of chlorine could endanger 3 million people.
Required by the EPA to report these worst-case scenarios to the government, the companies say current safety practices make a catastrophe unlikely. But while a post-Sept. 11 presentation by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to defense, intelligence, law enforcement and industry officials agreed, it also warned that "terrorists can make the 'unlikely' happen."
The American Chemistry Council said many plants have increased worker identification checks, hired additional guards and fortified perimeter security since Sept. 11. The council recently published voluntary site-security guidelines.
Since the September attacks, the EPA has convened a series of closed-door meetings and seminars with industry leaders, urging them to fortify their plants. But the agency is evaluating whether its enforcement powers cover plant security. The agency said it has made no effort to check whether plants have made the voluntary security improvements that are claimed.
"There is quite a bit of work to do," said Jim Mackris, chief of the EPA's Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office. But there are limits on the EPA, he added, and much depends on the companies and their concerns about civil and criminal liability, insurance costs and public relations.
"If you blow up, you probably are going to lose some customers, going to lose some workers and going to lose some reputation," Mackris said.
'The Wake-Up Call' Evidence of al Qaeda's interest in chemical attacks is well known -- copies of U.S. chemical trade publications were found in an Osama bin Laden hideout last week.
But al Qaeda terrorists are not alone in considering attacks on chemical plants and refineries. Such plots have involved anti-government militia members in the United States and Chechen rebels in Russia.
Two years ago, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested two alleged militia members over a plot to blow up in Elk Grove, Calif., two 12 million-gallon liquid propane tanks and four 60,000-gallon high-pressure propane tanks, located about one mile from a residential subdivision in suburban Sacramento.
"To me, that should have been the wake-up call to the industry," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jodi Rafkin said.
A 1998 report by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Chemistry Council's predecessor, acknowledged the threat. "Put in the right place, bombs can deliver the equivalent destructive power of a weapon of mass destruction," the study concluded.
A Texas A&M University study released in October documented 16,060 sudden, dangerous chemical releases in 1998 that caused 61 deaths and 4,002 injuries. "From the point of view of the terrorist, any chemical is a target," said Sam Mannan, the study's lead researcher.
In Louisiana, EPA reports from 50 companies documented 32 spills, fires, explosions and toxic gas releases between 1993 and 2000. The state in 1999 averaged 1,831 pounds of released toxic chemicals for each industry employee, nearly five times the national average.
The Louisiana Chemical Association, the chemical plants' trade organization, said in a statement that "security has been heightened" at the sites since Sept. 11, but it did not describe the new measures "for obvious reasons."
'Big Vulnerabilities' For more than 1 1/2 years, the EPA and other federal agencies have employed a variety of methods to encourage, goad, warn and prod chemical plants to bolster security.
A February 2000 EPA bulletin warned about "today's increased concern about terrorism and sabotage" and urged "all companies, big and small," to have "some measure of site security in place to minimize crime and to protect company assets."
At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, chem/bio national security program manager Ronald Koopman said he has repeatedly warned companies that they were unprepared for terrorist attacks.
"We would say, 'We see these big vulnerabilities and they make us nervous,' " Koopman said. "And they would say back to us, 'What's the real threat?' And we would say, 'We don't know.' The vulnerabilities are much more dangerous now. . . . It has scared me for some time."
A report published in 1999 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found serious shortcomings at more than two dozen plants in two communities, which they did not name but which sources said were Las Vegas and the Kanawha Valley in West Virginia.
"Security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor," the agency found. "Most security gaps were the result of complacency and lack of awareness of the threat."
Plant security officials were "very pessimistic about their ability to deter sabotage by employees, yet none of them had implemented simple background checks for key employees such as chemical process operators," the report said.
Security around loading docks, ship docks, trains and trucks ranged from "poor to non-existent," the report said. Chemical barge terminals along rivers were freely accessible, and rail and truck links "had no security beyond staging areas."
Meanwhile, "railcars containing cyanide compounds, flammable liquid pesticides, liquefied petroleum gases, chlorine, acids and butadiene were parked alongside residential areas," the report said.
The American Chemistry Council criticized the report for discussing only two communities, saying that they were "not representative of the rest of the country or of the entire chemical industry."
Justice Department Inertia Despite its stated concern for safety, the industry strongly opposes recently introduced legislation requiring plants to assess the risks of attacks and to propose remedies.
"Additional regulations, stronger enforcement -- that isn't going to do the trick," the council's Webber said. "What you need is the industry stepping up on its own, preventing the worst from happening."
With the goal of preventing terrorist attacks, the industry since Sept. 11 has prodded the EPA and other federal agencies to remove from the Internet data on hazardous materials and chemical plant vulnerabilities.
The trade-off between plant security and the public's right to know about risks to neighborhoods first surfaced in 1999, when Congress agreed to restrict the Internet availability of the EPA's "worst-case scenarios" for individual plants.
In return, lawmakers required the Justice Department to prepare a report assessing the plants' vulnerability "to criminal and terrorist activity." An interim report was to be completed in a year.
To date, no report has been produced. The problem is funding. The study was supposed to cost $500,000, to be paid for from existing funds. Last year, however, Justice Department officials said a full report would cost $7 million, requiring a separate appropriation. Congress in late 2000 appropriated $600,000 for a scaled-back study that would merely develop "a methodology" for assessing plant vulnerability. The interim report is promised by Dec. 21.
Community right-to-know advocates say the combination of Justice Department inertia and the new restrictions on public information take the pressure off industry.
"Part of the reason" security improved, said Stuart Greenberg, of the Cleveland-based Environmental Health Watch, "was that they didn't want to be in the newspaper as the 'top ten' this or that."
'Inherent Safety' Since Sept. 11, plants and refineries have increased ID checks, tightened access, hired more security guards, replaced broken fences and cameras, reduced inventories of hazardous chemicals and enlisted the help of local police departments.
"We started looking at ourselves as a target, probably for the first time," said Jeff Jakonczuk, environmental health and safety manager at General Chemical Corp. in Richmond, Calif. "We realized that even though we had security practices in place, they didn't address terrorism very well."
But "the kinds of security changes that have been made are superficial," said Rick Engler of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a watchdog group representing more than 50 union locals.
Many critics warn that the recently tightened security fails to address the issue of "inherent safety" -- changing processes or substituting chemicals to minimize the use of dangerous substances.
Proponents of inherent safety say that it is the best way to avert catastrophes.
"The week after September 11th, we had a meeting on plant security," said Greenberg in Cleveland. "We had a big regional wastewater treatment plant, and we said, 'Isn't it great, they don't have to worry because they switched from chlorine to sodium hypochlorite [bleach] to purify their water?" The District's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant made the same switch.
Northern California's Contra Costa County, with 45 large refineries and chemical plants, has an ordinance requiring chemical companies to research inherent safety processes and to explain to local officials when they decide not to use them. Without an enforcement mechanism in place, however, the ordinance's effect is in dispute. A recent local study documented 25 major accidents in the county in 1999 and 2000, resulting in four worker deaths and 16 injuries.
Proponents also say that inherent safety provides a permanent solution, while beefed-up security can be temporary.
For example, at the East Coast's largest refinery, Phillips Petroleum Co.'s Bayway Refinery in Linden, N.J., the U.S. Coast Guard, after the Sept. 11 attacks, refused to renew the waiver of a safety regulation requiring one supervisor to be on the dock for every ship unloading dangerous chemicals. The reason was "national security," said Coast Guard congressional liaison Cmdr. Karl Schultz in a letter to Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.), Linden's congressman.
But Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Bennis, the port captain of New York and New Jersey, renewed the waiver after several additional security measures were implemented. Bayway Refinery spokesman Mike Karlovich said security has been heightened to protect the refinery and docks, and he blamed the Teamsters union for exaggerating the threats "to try and scare our neighbors" to further "their labor agenda."
Curt E. Greder, president of Teamsters Local No. 877 in Linden, said companies have lost an opportunity. "We're angry, we're nervous, just like every other American," said Greder, a refinery employee. "We work inside a bomb. Right now, it is not the greatest place to work."
Database editor Sarah Cohen and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.