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Hell Might Come on Wheels, But Schools and Railroads Keep Terror Risks Secret
Fair Use Statement
Source: Washington Post
Hell might come on wheels.
Sunday, February 16, 2003; Page B08
The Jan. 29 Metro story "Fairfax to Confine Students in Case of Terrorist Attack" rightly described the plan to keep students in locked-down schools as "a throwback to the 'duck-and-cover' exercises of the 1950s and '60s." This approach would provide only limited protection for our children in the event of biological or chemical attack.
Fairfax school officials have had the foresight to draw a map showing the proximity of county schools to hazardous-materials facilities that might become terrorist targets. But they concede that the map, which is being kept secret, does not take into account the huge threat posed by the rail and highway cargo that moves through the county every day and night.
According to a former high-level hazardous-materials regulator for the U.S. Department of Transportation, the release of material from a single ammonia tank truck in a populated area could cause a disaster on the level of the 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, India. In that spill, 3,000 people died in one night and 100,000 were injured. Further, the D.C.-based Chlorine Institute warns companies that use chlorine gas that just one 90-ton rail tank car could release a toxic cloud more than 40 miles long.
The D.C. area is a convergence point for dangerous rail and highway cargo from the eastern half of the country, so any attack in this area could cause major economic disruptions. The Association of American Railroads has studied the vulnerability of rail cargo to terrorist attack, but, as with the school study, its findings are being kept secret.
We do know that the District has for years banned tanker trucks from the city's tunnels; reportedly such trucks are now also kept away from the White House and the Capitol. But the red-circle "Hazardous Cargo" signs on the Southeast Freeway indicate that through trucks carrying dangerous cargo can take this shortcut, which passes within shouting distance of large federal buildings. According to federal law, trucks carrying hazardous materials are not allowed to go through populated areas unless there is no "practicable" alternative route. But a federal official who monitors motor carrier safety in this region says that in 20 years he has never seen a trucker cited for violating this statute. Major rail routes also parallel the freeway.
The lockdown strategy the Fairfax schools espouse could be helpful in the event of a short release of toxic gas, but it would be of limited value if the gas release were serious or prolonged.
But the alternative -- evacuation -- is a problem. In this area we can hardly move during a normal rush hour. Imagine a crisis in which frantic parents were trying to reach their children.
What we need is a regional focus on prevention. The District commendably, if belatedly, showed the way after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when it switched the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant from chlorine gas to bleach.
In transportation, similar precautionary measures should be considered, including stopping unnecessary transportation of dangerous cargo and rerouting other cargo away from populated areas.
No one should be fooled into thinking that any level of government is working seriously on the issue of how vulnerable our rail and truck cargo is to terrorism. The Transportation Security Administration has hired 55,000 people to work on airline security. For truck and rail, as of last month, it had hired 26.
The insurance industry says that Washington (along with New York and San Francisco) is 100 times as likely as other cities to be attacked in the coming years. That frightening assessment underscores how vital it is that we focus on reducing risks associated with our infrastructure.
-- Fred Millar
is a member of the D.C. Local
Emergency Planning Commission.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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