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Week of 6.30.06

Toxic Transport

Thousands of tons of hazardous chemicals are transported throughout the United States each day by trucks, trains and barges, often through heavily populated areas. Despite the danger they pose, national security experts say these transports are largely unguarded and very vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

And the terrorists know it. American intelligence agencies have been aware for several years that Al-Qaeda is interested in targeting U.S. railroads. In 2002 the F.B.I. found photographs of U.S. railroad engines, cars and crossings in Al Qaeda's possession.

"I'm sorry to say since 9/11 we have essentially done nothing in this area," Richard Falkenrath, formerly one of President Bush's top advisers on homeland security, said in Senate testimony last year.

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Falkenrath is one of several in Washington alleging the federal government is failing to protect the nation from the threat of an attack on toxic chemicals. He says that if terrorists were to attack our chemical sector, the casualties could be on the scale or in excess of lives lost and affected on 9/11.

One of the military's top scientists, Jay Boris of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, told the Washington D.C. city council that in a worst-case scenario even more people would die.

"When the wind is in the right direction, a hundred thousand people could easily die. It might as well be nerve gas," he said. The U.S. Navy has worked on several simulations to demonstrate how chemicals would spread in major American cities in the event of a release.

Some cities are considering legislation to reroute trains to minimize the risk of the devastating effect of an attack. Washington D.C. passed a law that would limit the transportation of the most dangerous chemicals through the district. A day after the bill was signed into law, the railroad company that owns the freight tracks going through the city sued to stop it. The Bush Administration -- which has long resisted tougher security requirements for chemical industry -- sided with the railroad.

Are we doing enough to keep our own hazardous chemicals from becoming weapons of mass destruction? America the Vulnerable. Next time on NOW.

Also This Week: Guantanamo Detainees Update

David Brancaccio sits down with John D. Hutson, who once served as a senior lawyer for the Navy, to talk about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Bush administration does not have the authority to try terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by military tribunal. "This decision pulls a couple of rugs out from the Administration's prosecution of the war," Hutson tells David Brancaccio. "Basically, the court's saying, 'You've got to play by the rules.'" Read more

Related Resources:

"Al-Qaeda was targeting the railway sector, including possible attacks on hazardous material containers," FBI Intelligence Warning, October 2002

Kathy Patterson, Washington D.C. Council Member, "The Terrorism Prevention in Hazardous Materials Transportation Emergency Act of 2005"

"Passenger Rail Security," Congressional Research Service, January 2006 [pdf]

"Current Issues in Rail Transportation of Hazardous Materials," House Rail Subcomitee Testimony on the Railroads, American Chemistry Council, June 13, 2006

American Association of Railroads: "Hazardous Materials Transport Overview" [pdf]

Statement of Edward R. Hamberger, President and C.E.O., Association of American Railroads, before the U.S. House of Representatives, June 13, 2006 [pdf]

Greenpeace: "Chemicals of Mass Destruction"