Sitting Ducks – The Threat to the Chemical and Refinery Industry From 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles


Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, federal officials have warned the chemical and refinery industry that hazardous-materials plants could be turned into weapons of mass destruction.1 The attacks—which made enormously destructive bombs out of passenger jets—woke the world to the fact that familiar objects we tend to think of as relatively benign can become terrifying weapons inflicting catastrophic damage:

  • A study by the U.S. Army surgeon general concluded that 2.4 million people could be killed or injured—in the worst-case scenario—if terrorists attacked a toxic chemical plant in a densely populated area, and that about 900,000 such casualties could occur in a middle-range scenario.2

  • A similar analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that at least 123 plants in the United States keep amounts of toxic chemicals that could place more than one million people in danger if released, 700 plants maintain amounts that could endanger at least 100,000 people, and more than 3,000 plants maintain amounts that could affect 10,000 people.3

  • A small-plane pilot, who one witness believes was Mohammad Atta, the suspected ringleader of the September 11 attacks, showed great interest in a chemical plant in Tennessee he had just flown over. The plant’s storage tanks contained 250 tons of sulfur dioxide, enough to kill or seriously injure as many as 60,000 nearby residents.4

These warnings do not represent new knowledge. Counter-terrorism experts have for some time warned that terrorists may target the chemical industry and other hazardous facilities. For example, the possibility was addressed in a 1999 blue-ribbon panel report to the President and Congress on the threat from chemical and biological terrorist attack. After noting the obstacles to mounting an attack with actual chemical weapons, the panel discussed an alternate avenue:

Given these impediments, a terrorist interested in harming large numbers of persons might prefer to attempt to engineer a chemical disaster using conventional means to attack an industrial plant or storage facility, rather than develop and use an actual chemical weapon. In this way, significant technical and resource hurdles could be overcome, as well as reducing the profile of the terrorist organization to potential detection by intelligence or law enforcement agencies. Common industrial and agricultural chemicals can be as highly toxic as bona fide chemical weapons and, as the 1984 Bhopal, India, catastrophe demonstrated, just as (if not even more) effective when unleashed on a nearby population.5

According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the Bhopal incident referred to above involved the release of methyl isocyanate into the air and resulted in an estimated 2,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries.6

Environmental groups have added their voice to the government’s warnings. For example, the activist organization Greenpeace has in the past demonstrated the vulnerability of such plants by skirting security to get inside sensitive facilities, and pointed out the risk of attack mounted from outside typical security zones. “Unfortunately, it’s true that…terrorists could render any of these facilities or transport of toxic chemicals a disaster without ever penetrating security,” a Greenpeace spokesperson said recently.7 The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization, has sued the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to submit a report to Congress—required by the Clean Air Act—on chemical plant vulnerability.8 A coalition of environmental groups recently issued The Safe Hometowns Guide, a guidebook outlining steps that communities can take to reduce the risk from hazardous industrial locations.9

The chemical industry has responded to this new threat by what one observer called raising “the commitment to security to an unprecedented level.”10 The American Chemistry Council (ACC) promises to have a new security plan by June 2002 to supplement guidelines it issued in October 2001.11

According to the ACC’s existing guidelines, “The first step in constructing a solid security program is to conduct a risk assessment—in other words, to take stock of the assets that need to be protected, the threats that may be posed against those assets, and the likelihood and consequences of attacks against those assets.”12

This report provides detailed information about a serious threat to refinery and hazardous-chemical facilities: the 50 caliber sniper rifle and the armor-piercing, incendiary, and explosive ammunition it is capable of firing accurately over thousands of yards.a The U.S. Army’s manual on urban combat states that 50 caliber sniper rifles are intended for use as anti-materiel weapons, designed to attack bulk fuel tanks and other high-value targets from a distance, using “their ability to shoot through all but the heaviest shielding material.”13

Few would disagree that rockets and mortars in the hands of terrorists would present alarming threats to refineries and hazardous-chemical facilities. But the general public, most policymakers, many in the media, and even some who are responsible for providing security to such facilities do not know that the 50 caliber sniper rifle is the equivalent in firepower of rockets and mortars. Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Inc., the maker of the leading 50 caliber sniper rifle, states the matter starkly in its own advertising material:

With decisive force and without the need for the manpower and expense of mortar or rocket crews, forces can engage the opposition at distances far beyond the range of small arms fire….The advantages are obvious when you consider that many of the same targets for rocket and mortar fire can be neutralized…[by the 50 caliber sniper rifle].14

Although rockets, mortars, and other weapons of war are tightly controlled under existing federal law, 50 caliber sniper rifles are no more regulated than traditional hunting rifles and less regulated than handguns. As the VPC’s earlier study Voting from the Rooftops documents in detail, 50 caliber sniper rifles are proliferating and have been purchased by terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden’s organization, the Irish Republican Army, and domestic terror gangs.

The threat to the refinery and chemical industry can be neither fully nor seriously addressed without taking into account the highly dangerous materiel destruction capabilities of the 50 caliber sniper rifle, a weapon of war easily available on the U.S. civilian gun market.

a) This report is drawn in substantial part from the broader October 2001 Violence Policy Center report on the 50 caliber sniper rifle, Voting from the Rooftops: How the Gun Industry Armed Osama bin Laden, other Foreign and Domestic Terrorists, and Common Criminals with 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles.

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