August 02, 2005
Joe Biden's op-ed on the dangers posed by chemical attack is worth a read, not just for its terrorism implications, but what it says about the Bush administration's priorities:
The Chlorine Institute has estimated that an assault on a chlorine tanker could create a toxic cloud extending up to 15 miles. If this poisonous fog drifted over Capitol Hill, where deadly chemicals are transported just four blocks from the U.S. Capitol, thousands of people could be killed and Congress and the Supreme Court could be shut down for an extended period.
In fact, the Naval Research Laboratory has estimated that up to 100,000 people could be killed or injured in less than a half-hour by such an attack. Hospitals would be inundated with patients seeking treatment for burns to the eyes, skin and lungs. Thousands of panicked residents would need to be evacuated.
To address this threat and protect the millions of people who live in, work in and visit our nation's capital, the D.C. Council recently passed a law banning hazardous shipments from coming within 2.2 miles of the Capitol building. Many other cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland, are considering similar protective actions.
The rail industry has been joined by the Bush administration in blocking the D.C. law from taking effect, arguing that federal law preempts local bans and that it is the responsibility of the federal government to address this threat.
Of course they blocked it. In a Chlorine attack, neither the Bush administration nor Congress will have any trouble receiving medical treatment, they won't be among the thousands crushing into hospitals that're unable to accommodate the onslaught. In that way, it's not among the most immediately dangerous of threats, and certainly not worth passing legislation some industry or another doesn't like. As for all those folks who live in DC, who never asked to be born near the Capitol and never wanted to assume the exponentially higher risk of terrorist assault, screw 'em. Screw them, and their city council, and their peace of mind. If we start legislating against industry wishes now, the terrorists will have surely won.
August 2, 2005 | Permalink
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<ironic font>Without this op-ed would never think to target chemical containers. Joe Biden is therefore giving aid and comfort to our enemies. Joe Biden is guilty of treason.</ironic font>
Posted by: pansauce | Aug 2, 2005 1:13:40 PM
I think Biden makes some good points here, and the overall concept that we should probably do more to protect against this sort of attack is not a bad idea, but some of this op-ed is pretty weak.
First off, while terrorists have targeted trains, the Madrid and London attacks were on passenger trains, not cargo trains hauling chemicals.
I also find the 100,000 killed or wounded number suspicious. Developing chemical weapons for maximum dispersment to inflict mass casualties is a complex task that governments have spent a lot of research on. 100,000 is probably a absolutely worst case scenario with all the possible unknown variables assumed to be the most disasterous.
I also don't know that I like his solution at all. On the one hand, letting municipalities know when things are rolling through town might be beneficial if there was a problem. On the other hand, if this info leaked it could actually cause the problem we want to avoid.
I think it would make more sense to ensure that all municipalities had complete info about all the types of chemicals that might be routed through their areas, and how to deal with them. In addition, making sure that the transport cars are more secure from tampering or damage, especially for the most lethal chemicals, seems like a good idea (it might already have been done,) but publishing the exact schedual of when and where these chemicals will be seems foolish.
Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 2, 2005 1:53:34 PM
Dave, your narrow-minded thinking is not one that should be used when assessing terrorist threats. Just because they target passenger trains over there doesn't mean they won't ever try something different over here.
Also, you refuted yourself in the second paragraph. You find 100k killed "suspicious", then understand the rationale in the end ("it's a worst case scenario"). Are we supposed to consider the best case scenario when assessing terroist threats?
As for leaking of the information, terrorists can already do their homework to figure out what's being shipped where. They have the time and patience to do it, attacks are made on their schedule. Municipalities don't have the resources to do what terrorists can already do. I don't see how this will reduce the security of this information, Biden didn't propose for this info to be public knowledge.
Posted by: verplanck colvin | Aug 2, 2005 2:43:25 PM
I didn't say that terrorists wouldn't target cargo trains. I said that terrorists targeting passenger trains in Europe does not provide very good support that they are trying to target cargo trains in America. It is a poor argument.
However, I do, as I think I made clear, support the conclusion that terrorists would target cargo trains.
I don't think we should consider the best case scenario, but when evaluating how to defend ourselves and looking at the various possible threats it is important to look at the likely scenarios, not the absolute worst case. The proper steps to protect from a type of attack that would likely kill dozens is different than the proper steps to protect from an attack that would likely kill thousands. Especially when one has to choose where to spend one's resources. The 100,000 number strikes me as unrealistic, but I could certainly be wrong about that.
I don't know how easy or difficult it would be for terrorists to figure out what was being shipped where. I expect it would be quite difficult to determine what is being shipped where at what time, which is what they would need to know. I assume that for this information to be useful to municipalities, it would have to be shared with quite a few people. The more people who know something, the more likely it is to leak to those we don't want to know it.
Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 2, 2005 3:18:41 PM
The rail industry has been joined by the Bush administration in blocking the D.C. law from taking effect
one of many examples of the Federal government screwing over your soon-to-be home city. D.C. tends to be treated like a child who can't be trusted with his allowance.
Posted by: Matt F | Aug 2, 2005 3:18:55 PM
Of course they blocked it. In a Chlorine attack, neither the Bush administration nor Congress will have any trouble receiving medical treatment, they won't be among the thousands crushing into hospitals that're unable to accommodate the onslaught.
Boy, Ezra, I think you could turn a Fiesta into a class warfare issue.
Posted by: Fred Jones | Aug 2, 2005 3:24:14 PM
Ezra, I don't think that "of course they're blocking the law, they're not at risk" is the argument that you want to be using. This law is not designed to keep the American people safe from chemical attack. A central purpose of the DC law is to protect politicians by keeping hazardous chemicals at least 2.2 miles from where the politicians work. If you think that the politicians aren't really at risk, then this law doesn't accomplish much. Biden is the one who is expressing concern about what a chemical attack in DC would do to the government.
I think that routing the transportation of hazardous chemicals away from densely populated areas could be a good thing to do, depending on how costly it would be, and Biden's legislative proposal sounds like a good one. However, I doubt that the fact that Bush would get special treatment in the event of an attack has much to do with his opposition to these laws.
Posted by: Blar | Aug 2, 2005 4:19:22 PM
Ezra, Biden's an ass. He's inflaming the public on an issue that any risk management expert could tell you is way overblown. Let me address your last thought first by noting that the Bush administration did not "block" the DC council, rather, CSX took the DC Council to court because it had broken interstate commerce laws. The judge ruled that the DC Council had failed to show any evidence of deliberate or increased risk on behalf of the rail company and therefore they HAD NO CASE.
The worst-case scenarios that have been presented have no basis in fact, and to answer some of the commenters here, emergency planners have to consider all possibilities, but you plan (and budget) for the most PROBABLE incidents, not the worst case scenarios. You can't afford to prepare for every low probability, high consequence incident. That's what the Feds and the National Response Plan are for.
I have more analysis here, if you're interested. Bottom line, Biden is throwing out issues to the public not because there is a concern but because he's trying to get attention and show his "leadership" qualities. He's pandering to public fear of terrorism instead of offering reasonable solutions, and your accusing the Bush administration of indifference is not justified in any public policy analysis of this subject.
Posted by: J. | Aug 3, 2005 8:08:34 AM
For all of you who don't live in DC this is all just theoritical. For someone who works on the Hill and lives 13 blocks from the Capitol I have a very personal interest in this. This is not theory.
The DC council took this action because they felt the feds weren't touching this - and considering how little the feds care about this area (I am including the whole metro area on this) I can totally see their point. The Capitol Police care only about Congressional members, staffers, and visitors on their turf - and it is in that order. The Secret Service only care about the President and Vice President with diplomats of foreign countries waaaaay back. The FBI - who knows who they care about locally - but I can say with certaintly it ain't me or the other average citizens who live and work in DC. The DC police - well they can only care so much and have all they can do with local crime assuming of course they were funded for this kind of thing. As for funding, considering that federal assistance to local jurisdiction for this kind of thing sucks nationwide - don't count on that being helpful. Also, when the administration made DC pick up the entire tab for the inauguration - the first time that was the case - the DC police had no choice but to use money that was supposed to be for terrorism related work and the like.
Yes the DoT should likely take the lead - but it doesn't seem to have done so - at least not to the satisfaction of localalites.
And just so you can get an idea of how close these trains get to the Capitol complex - ask the staffers in the the Rayburn House Office Building and the Ford House Office building - they can tell you. They can also likely feel or at least hear the trains as they pass by.
Finally, as a point on numbers, the District of Columbia has a population of roughly 572,000. That does not count those who live in northern VA (just on the other side of the river), southern MD (the width of a street away in some places), or anyone who commutes to this area. So frankly 100,000 is not such a wrong number depending on where and when an incident happend.
Posted by: ET | Aug 3, 2005 9:12:35 AM
Hey ET, I live just across the river, so I do have a local interest as well. And from where I stand, the DC Council didn't have the authority to take the actions they did, but more importantly, didn't do the homework to see if this was really a problem or not. Any idiot can dream up "what if" scenarios. Fact is, you only get that 100,000 casualties if all those people line up next to the trainline and continue to stand there, breathing in the fumes for an hour or so. Anyone in a building, car, bus, Metro, etc, will not be significantly affected. Anyone with half a brain will run from the incident and maybe suffer from smarting eyes, at worst.
Emergency responders don't have funds or time to jump through hoops for every worst-case scenario that may never happen. They're too busy dealing with immediate threats and high-probability situations. And the solutions Biden offers are frankly ludicrious. We can't prevent oil tankers and liquid natural gas tankers from terrorists or natural accidents - what makes you think the govt can track the thousands of hazmat shipments executed every day across the country?
Posted by: J. | Aug 3, 2005 10:06:22 AM
Of course the DC council didn't have the authority - but then they don't have the authority do much of anything. I always got the feeling that while they would have liked to have done something that would have held, they were aware that they were on the losing end of that battle. I got the feeling that this was more of a way for people to pay attention. Of course that impression may be wrong. The DC council spends an inordinate amount of time spitting in the wind or beating their head on a brick wall just to either feel relevant or raise the hue and cry when something they hold near and dear is ignored.
As for Biden's solutions - I don't look for solutions to everyday things to come from politicians. No matter how well intentioned or informed they just don't have the expertise. I just wish that people with the expertise had the authority and more importantly the backing, to do something. Yes CSX should be in on what is going on but they shouldn't necessarily have veto power by way of the administration's political interests.
I have seen those trains pass by standing at the Brookland Metro station and I am sure the people whose house back up to the line, wish someone would do something. You can litterally reach out and touch the trains. This is the capital of the country. This is spitting distance (almost literally) to congressmen and the president - if they aren't doing what they need to do here of all places, they sure as heck ain't doing it elsewhere. I mean talk about congressional self-interest!
Posted by: ET | Aug 3, 2005 10:59:41 AM
Fact is, you only get that 100,000 casualties if all those people line up next to the trainline and continue to stand there, breathing in the fumes for an hour or so. Anyone in a building, car, bus, Metro, etc, will not be significantly affected. Anyone with half a brain will run from the incident and maybe suffer from smarting eyes, at worst.
J., have you ever heard of mustard gas?
While your basic point is correct - the 100k casualty figure is worst case - I think you exaggerate in the opposite direction here.
I've worked with gaseous chlorine (gawd, we were stupid in the 1970s) and one good lungful from a leaky cylinder can put you in the hospital. Chlorine is nasty, nasty stuff. NIOSH puts the "immediately dangerous to life or health" level as 10ppm. The only thing that renders it less deadly is that you smell it at much lower concentrations than are immediately harmful. But if you're near the tracks when a tankerful blows up, how do you know which way to go? "Away from the tracks" might not work, chlorine is dense and will pool in low-lying areas.
"Casualties" don't just mean dead bodies on the ground. Do this thing at the right place and time, and you will have thousands of people with irritated eyes, throats, and lungs. The worst cases will have lung blistering and pulmonary edema.
This is one of those areas where the actual threat (big) and the amount of attention and funding (tiny) are *way* out of whack.
Posted by: jackd | Aug 3, 2005 11:46:10 AM
jackd - yeah, having been in the Army Chemical Corps for a number of years and worked in the CB defense field for even more, that subject comes up. Mustard gas is about ten times as toxic as chlorine, and oh by the way, no one is moving mustard gas on the rails these days. In fact, many water treatment plants no longer use chlorine gas, the result being having to spend more money using less efficient chemical solids.
As you point out, you can smell it prior to harmful levels that might incapacitate you. You can also *see* chlorine, and it does stay low, which is good for all the people in buildings, isn't it? So what's the threat estimate based on? I will submit, lots of people standing stationary at ground level around the tanker, waiting to get their lethal doses. But people don't act like that, which lessens the threat (especially of a colored, smelly gas that's crawling on the ground), and if it's a hot sunny afternoon, the gas ain't going anywhere but UP.
Realism, my friend, based on science and risk management, instead of some dumb politician's nightmares, needs to be the basis for planning and funding emergency response activities.
Posted by: J. | Aug 3, 2005 2:28:07 PM
Realism, my friend, based on science and risk management, instead of some dumb politician's nightmares, needs to be the basis for planning and funding emergency response activities
Yeah, "dumb politician's nightmares" are the basis for planning wars.
Posted by: Mr Furious | Aug 4, 2005 9:41:40 AM
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