KEARNY, New Jersey It is the deadliest target in a swath of industrial northern New Jersey that terrorism experts call the most dangerous two miles in America: a chemical plant that processes chlorine gas, so close to Manhattan that the Empire State Building seems to rise up behind its storage tanks.
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records, the plant poses a potentially lethal threat to 12 million people who live within a 14-mile, of 22-kilometer, radius.
Yet on a recent Friday afternoon, it remained loosely guarded and accessible. Dozens of trucks and cars drove by within 100 feet, or 30 meters, of the tanks. A car carrying a reporter and photographer drove back and forth for five minutes, snapping photos with a camera the size of a large sidearm, then drove off without being approached.
That chemical plant is just one of dozens of vulnerable sites between Newark Liberty International Airport and Port Elizabeth, which extends two miles to the east. A congressional study in 2000 by a former Coast Guard commander deemed it the nation’s most enticing environment for terrorists, providing a convenient way to cripple the economy by disrupting major portions of the country’s rail lines, oil refineries, pipelines, air traffic, communications networks and highway system.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, those concerns have only been magnified. Law enforcement officials have warned of the need to prepare for an assault on one of the four major chemical plants in the area or an attempt to ship nuclear or biological weapons through its two port complexes.
Trying to safeguard more than 100 potential terrorist targets in two miles surrounded by residential communities, industrial areas and commuter corridors has proved a daunting challenge. Federal, state and local officials have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to install gates, roadblocks and security cameras and to provide additional patrols, surveillance and intelligence operations.
But even those in charge of the effort say that the job is incomplete, bogged down by obstacles that are a microcosm of the nation’s struggle against potential terrorist threats.
After distributing tens of billions of dollars to state and local governments since the attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this year cut New Jersey’s financing to about $60 million from $99 million last year. Many security experts have complained that the formula – which provides Montana with three times as much money per person as it does New Jersey – is guided more by politics than by the likelihood of an attack.
Meanwhile, security at the Newark Airport, while more rigorous and time-consuming for passengers, has been marred by embarrassing breakdowns, as screeners have repeatedly failed to prevent government officials from sneaking weapons and fake bombs onto planes.
The time and expense of screening shipping containers has slowed attempts to tighten security at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, where customs officials say their radiation screening devices are ineffective and need replacement.
Private companies, which own 80 percent of the most dangerous targets, have given varying degrees of cooperation, officials said, and the chemical industry has effectively blocked attempts in Washington to mandate stricter regulations.
As a result, many of the most crucial security tasks are left to small, local police departments, some of which say they are too understaffed and poorly equipped to mount a proper counterterrorism effort.
“They tell us to patrol, do this, do that, but don’t give us the money or equipment,” said Sergeant Michael Cinardo of the Kearny Police Department, one of several law enforcement agencies responsible for patrolling around the chlorine plant. “We have a 120-person force, so we do the best we can. But is it enough? Not even close.”
He said the department required patrol officers to stop by the chlorine plant at least five times each shift.
Security against terrorism is a particularly sensitive issue in New Jersey. More than 700 people killed on Sept. 11 lived in the state. And in October 2001, the first major bioterrorism attack on United States soil was launched from a New Jersey post office, when anthrax-laced letters were mailed to members of Congress and news organizations. The state Health Department’s muddled response came to symbolize the nation’s need to prepare itself to face new threats.
Since then, New Jersey officials have spent more than $350 million in state tax money on counterterrorism, building an apparatus that is run by seasoned law enforcement experts and is generally well regarded.