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Terror and Environment
A few lessons could be learned from the September 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center. Humans change the environment -- and build their own artificial environments (e.g. dams, power plants, or large buildings) -- in ways that make people less or more vulnerable to catastrophe. The immediate cause might be terrorists -- but could as easily be floods, lightning, tornadoes, "accident," or faulty construction. The results could be equally disastrous.
More than simply posting guards on all these facilities (a fine first step), adaptive measures to make the facilities and people inherently less vulnerable to environmental disaster may be worth looking at. Here are some areas for environmental journalists to consider.
Drinking Water Systems
Drinking water sources, purification, and distribution systems are essential to public health, and failures could be catastrophic. Undoubtedly, U.S. systems are as safe as any in the world. But cholera, typhoid, and other enteric diseases once killed thousands in the United States and still kill millions abroad. The introduction of harmful chemical, biological, or radiological agents into public water supply systems could be disastrous -- whether caused by natural events, terrorism, or human error. What tests does your local system do that could help screen for trouble? How often? Which contaminants could pass through your system and which could not? How tight is the physical security around your systemís sources, plant, and distribution system? How safely are chlorine and other chemicals managed?
- American Water Works Association: Jack W. Hoffbuhr (Exec. Director), (303) 347-6135, firstname.lastname@example.org; or Doug Marsano (Public Affairs), (303) 734-6138, email@example.com, http://www.awwa.org/091101/paa091101.htm. Includes threat identification checklist and list of state emergency and counter-terrorism contacts. The May 2001 issue of Journal AWWA had emergency preparedness recommendations for communities.
- New York Times: "The Water Supply: E.P.A. Years Behind Timetable on Guarding Water From Attack," by Greg Winter, October 4, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/04/national/04WATE.html.
- EPA Administrator Christie Whitman on October 5 announced formation of a federal-state-local task force aimed at protecting drinking water from terrorists. Bonnie Piper, (202) 564-7836, firstname.lastname@example.org. See release of 10/5 at http://www.epa.gov/epahome/newsroom.htm.
- Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies: AMWA holds its annual meeting October 28-31, 2001, in San Francisco, and security issues will be on the program. Michael Arceneaux (Dir. Pub. Affairs), (202) 331-2820, email@example.com.
Nuclear Plants and Materials
Security of nuclear power plants is on peopleís minds. Could a nuclear plantís containment withstand a direct hit from a fully fueled wide- body jetliner? No -- said David Kyd, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as that body began its annual meeting in Vienna.
Terrorists are only one of the disastrous hazards plants could face at home and abroad. Plant safety, evacuation plans, and disaster contingencies havenít been the subject of press attention or public concern for a long time. Should they be? Is "inherent safety" possible at nuclear plants, and are Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission doing enough to promote it?
- Do you know how your local nuclear power plant performed in the most recent anti-terrorist drill -- if it had one? The NRC in 1991 required all licensed plants to undergo attacks by mock terrorists using fake weapons -- but tried to drop the requirement in 1998, on the grounds that it was too expensive. Nearly half of the plants tested flunked, and some remain untested. Before the September 11, NRC had been trying to privatize the program -- essentially letting utilities test themselves. Now all bets are off. Nuclear Control Institute: Steven Dolley, (202) 822-8444, release at http://www.nci.org/01nci/09/pr92501.htm.
- The IAEA on Sept. 21, 2001, adopted a resolution calling for beefed up design and physical security to prevent illicit use and sabotage of nuclear facilities and nuclear materials. IAEA (Vienna): David Kyd, [43-1] 2600-21270, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.iaea.org/worldatom/Press/.
- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission urged all U.S. nuclear facilities to go to their highest level of security on September 11, 2001. NRC Press: (301) 415-8200, email@example.com, http://www.nrc.gov/OPA. NRC releases of 9/21 and 9/25/2001:
- http://www.nrc.gov/OPA/gmo/newsrel.htm. Background: http://www.nrc.gov/OPA/gmo/tip/fssecurity.html. (Ed. note: the entire NRC Web site has been taken offline pending security review. We do not know when these materials will again be available.)
- Shipments of high-level nuclear wastes could also be vulnerable. The Energy Department reacted to the September 11 attack by scrubbing a train shipment of high-level waste originally scheduled to go from New York to Idaho in summer 2001, but delayed by protests. Map of routes: http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/states/us.htm. List of links: http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste/yucca/links.htm. Congressional Research Service: "Report for Congress: Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel," updated May 29, 1998, http://www.cnie.org/nle/eng-34.html. Kansas City Star: http://www.sej.org/go/010926-1.htm. Check with officials in your state.
- The Nuclear Energy Institute (industry group) says U.S. plants are safe. NEI Press: Scott Peterson, (202) 739-8000 or (703) 644-8805 (after hours), firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.nei.org/doc.asp?catnum=2&catid=214&UpFront=true.
- Institute for Science and International Security (anti- proliferation think tank): David Albright, (202) 547-3633, http://www.isis-online.org/publications/terrorism/index.html.
- Union of Concerned Scientists: Paul Fain, (202) 223-6133, email@example.com. Backgrounder on nuclear reactor security,
Oil and Gas Pipelines
Because of their length, ubiquity, and remoteness, pipelines can be nearly impossible to defend. Natural gas, gasoline, petroleum, and other pipelines can produce catastrophic fires and explosions when they fail. "Environmental" damage aside, these events can kill and injure people, and the casualties can be worse when pipelines are located near populated areas. Safety can be improved by the best siting, design, construction, maintenance, operation, and replacement of pipelines.
Recent articles suggest that state and federal agencies (such as DOTís Office of Pipeline Safety) could do much more to improve pipeline safety. There are also some things pipelines themselves can do to reduce the threats terrorists could present. Despite their vulnerability, pipelines are safer than trucks and other modes of transport.
- The Senate on February 8, 2001, passed a pipeline safety bill (S 235), but it is stalled in the House, where some Democrats favor a tougher bill (HR 144). Congressional Research Service: "Report for Congress RS20640: Pipeline Safety: Federal Program and Reauthorization Issues," http://www.cnie.org/nle/eng-66.html.
- DOT Office of Pipeline Safety: (202) 366-4595. List of information contacts: http://ops.dot.gov/request.htm. List of OPS Regional Offices: http://ops.dot.gov/rinfo.htm. Web site includes statistics and downloadable database on pipelines and safety incidents. The National Pipeline Mapping System has been taken offline and made unavailable to the public.
- Contact your state public service commission, utility regulatory body, etc. which regulates pipelines.
- Municipal Research & Services Center: Pipeline Safety Information for Local Governments, http://www.mrsc.org/pubsafe/pipesafety.htm.
- General Accounting Office: "Pipeline Safety: Progress Made, but Significant Requirements and Recommendations Not Yet Complete." GAO-01-1075 September 28, 2001, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d011075.pdf.
- Association of Oil Pipe Lines: Raymond Paul, (202) 408-7970, firstname.lastname@example.org. September 18, 2001, release: http://www.sej.org/go/010926-3.htm.
- Environmental Defense: Lois Epstein, (202) 387-3500.
- Austin American-Statesman: "Pipelines: The Invisible Danger -- A Special Report," by Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and Jeff Nesmith, July 22, 2001, http://www.austin360.com/aas/specialreports/pipelines/.
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Pipelines: Americaís Hidden Hazards," By Michael Paulson, Paul Nyhan, Scott Sunde, and Phuong Le, August 12, 1999, http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/pipelines/.
- SAFE Bellingham Project: Carl Weimer, (360) 733-8307, email@example.com, http://www.safebellingham.org/index.html. Citizen group in Washington city where 3 people were killed in June 10, 1999, pipeline fire. Good set of links.
U.S. chemical plants are vulnerable to acts of terrorism. But simple electrical outages are a more common threat. In 2000 alone, there were about 240 chemical releases caused by electric power interruptions, according to a report just released by EPAís Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office. Causes of outages range from rolling blackouts to earthquakes, storms, and lightning strikes. The short report gives journalists insights on chemical plant operations and potential strategies to lessen vulnerabilities.
- EPA Report: "Chemical Accidents from Electric Power Outages," http://www.epa.gov/ceppo/whatnew.html, Craig Matthiessen, (202) 564-8016, firstname.lastname@example.org. There have been no reported terrorist attacks on any U.S. chemical plants. But "accidents" routinely kill, injure, and damage property. Chemical Safety Board chairman Paul Hill told Congress in 1999 that some 25,000 chemical releases, fires, and explosions each year kill an average of roughly 225 people a year. Industry criticized the statistics, and the CSB withdrew them this year -- leaving the nation with no official estimates. Just under half the incidents involved transport of chemicals, rather than stationary plants. Nobody knows how many people were killed in the 1984 Bhopal disaster, but it was probably at least 2,000 -- a clue to how disastrous an accident or terrorist attack could be.
- Congress directed the Department of Justice to study site security at chemical plants and to assess their vulnerability to terrorism and ways to reduce it, but DoJ apparently has made little progress: DoJ media contact, Charles Miller, (202) 514-2008. The mandate was in the Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act of 1999. Perspective from OMBwatch: http://www.ombwatch.org/ombwatcher/current.html#chm.
- CDCís Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has published "Industrial Chemicals and Terrorism: Human Health Threat Analysis, Mitigation, and Prevention," http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/OFP/terrorism/indterr.html (although the report was online 9/21/01, it had been taken down by 9/24/01). CDC directs media inquires to the Department of Health and Human Services, Tony Jewell, (202) 690-6343, email@example.com.
Other Chemical Hazards
While petrochemical plants get the most attention, statistics from the Chemical Safety Board suggest that media overlook three quite common and widespread hazards: chlorine, ammonia, and propane. All of these are especially vulnerable to terrorism and other hazards.
Chlorine is commonly used in large quantities as a disinfectant in the drinking water and sewage plants of most large and mid-size cities. A tank car of chlorine on a siding or in transit could create a lethal plume miles long that could kill tens of thousands of people.
- Chlorine Chemistry Council: Janet Flynn, (703) 741-5827, http://www.c3.org/.
Ammonia is a highly toxic gas used in large quantities in various forms as an agricultural fertilizer and industrial refrigerant. It is often pressurized, making it more dangerous.
- The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in August 2001 published an EPA-prepared lay-language report: "Hazards of Ammonia Releases at Ammonia Refrigeration Facilities (Update)," online at http://www.csb.gov/info/ammonia.pdf.
Propane, which can be flammable and explosive, is used widely in residential, industrial, and agricultural settings, and large amounts of pressurized propane are commonly present at wholesale and even retail distribution points, as well as on the transport network.
- National Propane Gas Association: NPGA says that DOT contacted its Washington, DC, office after the September 11 disaster to urge extra precautions and security, especially for transporters near cities -- but also for pipelines and storage facilities. See http://www.npga.org/.
Chlorine, ammonia, and propane are often present in large amounts near densely populated areas. Roughly half of all hazmat incidents are actually transportation accidents -- a reminder of how the spread-out and undefended rail and road networks are particularly vulnerable.
Various nations have developed and produced chemical weapons -- substances whose main use is to harm people -- such as nerve gas or mustard gas. The use of such agents has been restricted or banned under various international treaties since before 1899. Nonetheless, stocks still exist, and it is possible to produce them, either in industrial plants or smaller-scale labs. Some military nerve agents, for example, are closely related to organophosphate pesticides, and could be manufactured at pesticide plants.
The hazards became more evident after the March 20, 1995, attack by the religious cult AUM Shinrikyo on the Tokyo subway with the nerve gas sarin, which killed a dozen people and injured hundreds of others.
Check in with your state emergency authorities, local fire and police departments, and hospital emergency rooms, to find out more about their planning and preparedness for chemical terrorism incidents.
- National Domestic Preparedness Office: (202) 324-9026, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.ndpo.gov/. This multi-agency body, housed at the FBI, is supposed to coordinate, equip, and train state and local emergency responders for weapons-of-mass-destruction incidents.
- Henry L. Stimson Center: This foundation-funded think tank runs a Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project. Contact: Amy E. Smithson, (202) 223-5956, email@example.com. Extensive background at http://www.stimson.org/cwc/terror.htm.
Building Design and Construction
Skyscrapers are very difficult to evacuate, rescue people from, or fight fires in. Intense fire in tall steel buildings causes steel to lose strength in about two hours, and the scale of the World Trade Center raised the chances that collapse would be catastrophic. Size/height is just one of the ways we make our built environment -- buildings, bridges, tunnels, or football stadiums -- unsafe. Some engineers say the Age of the Skyscraper is over, but others disagree.
After September 11, the structural collapse of large buildings can no longer be considered just a theoretical possibility. It may be possible to do a better job with smoke detectors, sprinklers, standpipes, and other fire systems. Evacuation without elevators should be fast, easy, and accessible to the frail and handicapped. Building materials need to have the lethality designed out of them. The asbestos once considered a safety feature in buildings is now considered a potential health threat. The glass windows that make buildings glitter can cut people when shattered. Too often building materials and furnishings are sources of toxic smoke during a fire. Ventilation systems are also key to safe and healthful buildings. Properly designed and maintained, they can protect people from threats ranging from formaldehyde to Legionnairesí disease. Improperly engineered, they can be vehicles for biological and chemical agents, smoke, and carbon monoxide.
Do your municipalityís zoning, building, and fire codes impose effective safety requirements on tall structures? How safe are large buildings in your area?
- Engineering News-Record, "Experts Debate Future of the Skyscraper in Wake of Disaster," (9/24/01), http://www.enr.com/news/enrbld_92401.asp.
- Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (Lehigh Univ.): (610) 758-3515, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.lehigh.edu/~inctbuh/. Chairman: Ron Klemencic, president of Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire, a Seattle engineering firm, (206)292-1200.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers has set up teams to study and report on implications of the September 11 disaster. List of experts: http://www.asce.org/emerg_document_pub.cfm. Press contacts: Jane Howell, (202) 326-5128 or Norida Torriente, (202) 326-5129.
- National Fire Protection Association (develops building and fire codes): Julie Reynolds or Margie Coloian, (617) 984-7275, http://www.nfpa.org/.
- DOE Sandia National Laboratory: "Architectural Surety(SM)" program, John German (press contact), (505) 844-5199, email@example.com; or Rudy Matalucci (Technical contact), (505) 844-8804, firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.sandia.gov/media/archsurety.htm.
- Duke Univ. (Engineering): Prof. Henry Petroski, (919) 660-5203, email@example.com.
Other Critical Infrastructure
Protection was set up in July 1996 under President Clintonís Executive Order 13010. The 18-member panel finished its report in October 1997. The report is online at http://www.info-sec.com/pccip/web/report_index.html. Clinton addressed the panelís recommendations in Presidential Decision Directive 63, signed in May 1998.
The PCCIP examined the following "critical infrastructure" areas: Information and Communications, Electrical Power Systems, Gas and Oil Transportation and Storage, Banking and Finance, Transportation, Water Supply Systems, Emergency Services, and Government Services. You can find information about PDD 63 at http://www.nipc.gov/about/pdd63.htm
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Report on Protecting Vital Systems Generates Little Action in 3 Years," by Bill Lambrecht, September 27, 2001.
Terror and the Electric Grid
The September 11 attacks should remind reporters of the vulnerability of the electric power supply system not just to terrorism, but to other natural and manmade disasters that could bring serious outages. While Californiaís woes have focused media attention on generating capacity, bottlenecks in the grid of transmission lines are also a key issue.
Few today remember the outage of November 9, 1965, which blacked out 30 million users in the Northeast. It led to many technical improvements in the grid and ultimately formation of the North American Electric Reliability Council. But deregulation has led to a new power environment that is more dependent than ever on transmission lines, and where many local utilities are losing their self-sufficiency. The wholesale power grid, which was not built for this much inter- dependence, is emerging as a weak link.
Power lines -- remote, spread-out, and undefended -- are vulnerable to terrorist attack. But the grid is perhaps equally vulnerable to a number of other man-made and natural disasters: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, transportation accidents, fires, etc. One possible solution advanced by industry -- more transmission lines -- could require federal siting authority that Western states tend to oppose.
- North American Electrical Reliability Council: Ellen P. Vancko (press contact), (609) 452-8060, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The "Electric Power Risk Assessment," conducted by the Clinton White Houseís National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee in 1997 looked at the vulnerability of the gridís electronic control system to hackers. It concluded that physical threats ranging from ice-storms to "amateur sharpshooters" were more worrisome. See http://www.aci.net/kalliste/electric.htm.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced September 14, 2001, that it would approve applications for passing along to electric ratepayers "prudently incurred costs" for security upgrades. Will your local utility apply? FERC: Tamara Young-Allen, 202-208-0680.
- The disaster potential from outages is most felt by crucial users. See, for example, EPAís September 2001 "Chemical Accidents from Power Outages," http://www.epa.gov/ceppo/pubs/power.pdf. What about your local hospitals, nursing homes, tall buildings, server farms, police and fire agencies, etc. Are they prepared?
Percent of Emergency Action Plans by State-Regulated High-and Significant-Hazard Potential Dams*
*Alabama, Delaware, and Indiana did not submit data.
The Bureau of Reclamation said September 12 that it had stepped up security at Hoover, Glen Canyon, and Grand Coulee dams, and security has been beefed up at many other dams since then. Historically, catastrophic dam failures have been responsible for some very large death tolls. Dam failure caused the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of 1889, which killed 2,200. Dams also play a key role in reducing flood fatalities. Today in the United States, there are many dams in unsafe structural condition, and many of those are upstream of vulnerable populated areas. Critics say the U.S. dam safety program needs strengthening. The National Dam Safety Program Act expires in September 2002.
What dams are near you? Are they upstream of populated areas? Have they been inspected and rated recently? Which are the high-hazard dams in your state? Do they have emergency action plans? How does your state measure up to the Model State Dam Safety Program? See http://www.fema.gov/mit/biennial.pdf.
- COE National Inventory of Dams: Bob Bank (Program Manager) (202) 761-4243, email@example.com, http://crunch.tec.army.mil/nid/webpages/nid.cfm. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains information on approximately 76,000 U.S. dams in downloadable database and GIS form. (Ed. note: the NID has been taken offline at least temporarily, but reporters needing data can request it from Banks, or get it from the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting, Jeff Porter, (573) 882-2042, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.nicar.org.
- Bureau of Reclamation Dam Safety Office: Bruce Muller, email@example.com, http://borworld.usbr.gov/dsis/. September 12, 2001, Burec release: Diana Cross, (208) 378-5020, http://www.usbr.gov/main/news/newsreleases/2001-09-12.html.
- Association of State Dam Safety Officials: Lori Spragens, (606) 257-5170, Lspragens@aol.com, http://www.damsafety.org/; Robert H. Dalton (President), (217) 782-3863, firstname.lastname@example.org. States regulate about 95% of U.S. dams.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): http://www.fema.gov/mit/damsafe/. For the percent of high-hazard dams in your state which have Emergency Action Plans, see http://www.fema.gov/mit/damsafe/assistance.htm (data in table). In most states, less than half do.
- United States Society on Dams (formerly U.S. Committee on Large Dams): Larry D. Stephens, (303) 628-5430, email@example.com, http://www2.privateI.com/~uscold/. (Robert Weinhold contributed to this report.)
Reprinted with permission. Published in Environment Writer newsletter October 2001, by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center.