If you tired to design the perfect spot for a terrorist attack you could not come up with a better spot than the Akcros Chemicals plant in New Brunswick New Jersey.
It is a 10 acre chemical plant at 500 Jersey Avenue in a densely populated city in the most densely populated state in the United States.
When it was first built many years ago, it was on the outskirts of the city. But as New Brunswick expanded, the city surrounded the plant with things that have no business being anywhere near a chemical plant.
Directly across the street from the chemical plant is a high school. Next to the high school is a middle school; then a grammar school. Bordering the plant the city built a park, where the kids from the grammar school have their physical education classes.
If there is ever an accident at the chemical plant a cloud of toxic gas will form and the wind will carry it . Anyone who is not sheltering inside with all windows and ventilation shut would get severe chemical burns, lung damage or die. If the toxic cloud goes one way it will immediately engulf the schools. If it goes the other way it will reach downtown New Brunswick in a matter of minutes. The population of New Brunswick is 56,156 people.
I was at the Akcros Chemicals Plant when the 9/11 attacks hit the World Trade Center. We could see the smoke from the towers in the distance. For a long time no one could decide what to do. Then someone came up with the idea that if terrorists were attacking multiple targets in the U.S. trying to kill as many people as possible, then maybe we should do something to secure the chemical plant. The gates were shut and an employee sat in a folding chair in front of the gate. The gate was not crash-proof and there were no actual guards.
In the weeks after 9/11 new security measures were put in place. If a tanker truck showed up at the plant the driver had to show a valid license I.D., insurance and proof that the truck had an appointment. Amazingly enough, before 9/11 this was not being done. Up until that point a truck filled with explosives could have driven right into the chemical plant with no security check at all.
The first security alert came just 1 week after 9/11. A full chemical tanker truck with no license plate of any kind pulled up to the main gate. The driver became belligerent when asked to show I.D. and it looked like there would be fight. One of the employees was intelligent enough to call 911. A policeman arrived in minutes after the 911 operator heard that a truck was trying to force its way into a chemical plant.
The driver started yelling at the policeman and said, “And what are you going to do if I don’t show you any I.D?”
By the time the driver finished that sentence the policeman was pointing a gun two inches from the driver’s head. That’s when the driver suddenly became very cooperative and produced all his I.D.s. It turns out that he was not a terrorist at all. He was an actual truck driver, but he had no registration, no insurance, and many driver’s licenses from many states in many different names.
The company he was driving for actually did have an appointment to deliver a load of chemicals at the plant. The trucking company was trying to save money by not having insurance or registration. The driver had so many tickets and points against him that he had started getting licenses from different states so that he would not reach the maximum number of points on any one license. It turns out that this is actually a common practice for truck drivers.
The police impounded the truck and took the driver to the police station. The police later told us that the minimum fines to the trucking company would be about $30,000. If the driver was lucky he would just get fined. There could be some jail time.
Even though there was never an actual terrorist attempt on the plant the instance with the truck is still very scary when you examine it. Every full chemical tanker on the highway is really just a toxic bomb on wheels driving through our major cities.
The industry tells the public that the trucks are safe and that the drivers are fully trained professionals. But is this true? The truck that arrived at Akcros in New Jersey had driven all the way from Washington State with no license plate on it and no police car had ever stopped it.
It the months after that first instance we never had a terrorist attack but we did have many trucks arrive with problems. Lots of drivers with no license. Lots of trucks with no insurance or inspection stickers. Leaking trucks. Trucks with bad brakes. Trucks with tires visibly wobbling.
It is just a matter of time until one of of these trucks causes a large loss of life. The right set of circumstances will happen. Bad drivers in bad truck are carrying toxic chemicals through large cities every day.
It won’t be a planned attack and it won’t be a terrorist with a political agenda. But the number of dead could well exceed what happened on 9/11. The only question is when it will happen.