Saturday, March 05, 2005

First Kill The Responders

You come over the rise, looking down on the disaster spreading out below you -- a multi-car collision involving a chemical tanker car on a derailed train, crumpled cars, bleeding, crying passengers and a tanker on its side leaking...something. You pull out the binoculars, train them on the railcar looking for the placard and find...nothing. No placard, no indication of what's spewing out of the tanker.

What do you do? Drive on down to help people, putting your own life, and the life of the rescue crew in danger? Evacuate the community? Or wait until someone can contact the company to find out what might be in the train?

This is a delemma that first responders once faced decades ago before train cars were required to have placards identifying any hazardous contents. Now, however, the Homeland Security and Transportation Departments have been considering whether to remove the placards:
For decades, emergency-response teams approaching train wrecks have peered at the signs through binoculars to see what dangerous chemicals might be leaking. But federal officials will soon decide on a proposal to remove the placards from all tank cars. Their fear is that terrorists could use them to lock in on targets for highly toxic attacks.

The idea has sparked an outcry from firefighters and rail workers, who say removing the signs could endanger their lives. They say federal officials seem more focused on guarding against a terrorist attack than on the daily threat of accidents.

"There's this feeling that you have to secure everything possible in every way possible for every possible kind of terrorist attack," Garry L. Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said.

The dispute illustrates a growing push to mask sensitive data about the nation's industrial base from the prying eyes of potential terrorists. In the tug of war over tank cars and other industrial information, critics question whether the move toward secrecy is overwhelming safety concerns and even chilling debates over how to eliminate the vulnerabilities.

People who live near chemical and nuclear plants, dams and oil and gas pipelines complain that it has become harder to find out about disaster plans and environmental hazards, and some have sued for more information. Engineering reports have been stripped from government Web sites, and several agencies are creating new controls on sensitive information that go far beyond the wide-ranging classification system built in the cold war.
First responders are particularly concerned since the recent railway catastrophe in South Carolina where leaking chlorine killed nine and injured hundreds last month.
Firefighters, railroad workers and large chemical companies are adamant about keeping the placards. Statistics show that chemicals leak from dozens of rail cars a year and that deaths occur periodically.

The chlorine placard is black and white. It has a skull and crossbones and the number 1017, the chlorine code. Without placards, "we'd be completely in the dark" at many crashes, said Joe Ashbaker, a supervisor in the San Bernardino County Fire Department in California.
The drive for secrecy is even shutting workers out of the chemical security planning process as we saw last month when unions and environmentalists protested a New Jersey chemical plant security plan that was developed without the input of the unions that represent the workers that work inside the plants.

Some doubt whether all the secrecy is really helping anyone and what other alternatives might exist:
"You can hide the information, but if the vulnerability still exists, the bad guys will find it," said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a group in Washington that supports more openness. "So let's reduce the vulnerability instead."

Mr. Bass said similar debates had prompted some complexes like a sprawling sewage plant in Washington to switch to less-toxic chemicals.
The Association of American Railroads is looking for alternatives to placards, but the computerized, eletronic satellite based systems have been proven expensive, cumbersome and less effective. The railway industry, under attack by communities like Washington DC that are seeking to restrict hazardous materials through the city, may be more interested in keeping communities in the dark than in keeping terrorists guessing:
On Tuesday, the District of Columbia Council extended a ban on shipping hazardous cargo through Washington.

Even as it opposed the ban, the CSX railroad company quietly re-routed some cargo away from Capitol Hill last spring. But citing security, railroad and security officials refused for months to tell the Council about the rerouting. It turns out that the railroad simply shifted the cargoes to tracks in other neighborhoods. Federal and railroad officials said the other tracks seemed less likely to be targets.

Related Articles
"We can't protect ourselves if we are not part of the plan" February 20, 2005
As If That Wasn't Bad Enough...More on Rail Safety, January 9, 2005
"The uninterrupted flow of hazardous materials is necessary for the health and safety of the U.S", January 8, 2005
Just Be Careful Not To Breathe, January 6, 2005
Weapons of Mass Destruction Found -- In Our Backyards, November 17, 2003
The War for Chemical Plant Safety, May 4, 2003