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Week of 6.30.06

Interview: Dangers in Transit

Stephen Flynn Stephen Flynn is a senior fellow at the Council in Foreign Relations. He served as an adviser for the bipartisan U.S. Commission on National Security and is a former Coast Guard Commander.

He spoke to NOW's Senior Correspondent, Maria Hinojosa, about the threat of chemicals being used as weapons by terrorists and how Washington has responded to this threat.


Hinojosa: How worried should Americans be about dangerous chemicals being transported across the country?

Flynn: What we have is ... weapons of mass destruction located in some of our most densely populated areas, which could cause mass casualties. We don't really know how secure they are. That should be quite worrisome in the time that we're in.

Hinojosa: What do you mean we don't know how secure they are?

Flynn: There are about for instance 15,000 facilities in this country that make chemicals. And these are some of the most deadly substances known to humanity. We turn them into benign uses for our economy and for our health. This is what goes into our water systems and so forth. But only about one sixth of those are required to have security plans. [For] the rest of them, you don't have a very good sense of how secure they are or what's being done to safeguard the public.

Hinojosa: Why, if they're so dangerous, doesn't the federal government have a way of tracking, knowing, understanding how and where they're being transported to?

Flynn: One is the industry has a very good track record really for safety. So when it comes to accidents, human error or other mechanical errors and so forth here, industry's done a pretty good job. So it's been sort of out of sight, out of mind, even though these chemicals move through the heart of our cities or on our river ways and past waterfronts that are congested or [they're] being produced in crowded neighborhoods ...

... Primarily management is done at the local and state level. And here you've got a hodgepodge of different rules that the cities or counties or state governments apply to provide oversight for this. And given that mix and the sheer numbers, the industry itself is very complicated. A few concentrated big players. Household names like Dow and so forth. But also lots of almost mom and pop producers around the country. So in light of that there's complexity in jurisdiction. State, local, and federal oversights all mix. There are different agencies at the federal level from EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to the Department of Transportation, to the Department of Homeland Security. And the lines amongst each have not been well defined. And then you get the Congress which is a mess in terms of its oversight.

Hinojosa: So how dangerous are these chemicals? Is it as bad as a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb?

Flynn: It's the chemical plants and some of the transport conveyances, depending on where they go, are truly weapons of mass destruction. There are what the EPA has recognized as 123 facilities that if you had essentially a release that was out of a act of terror or huge accident, up to a million people would be exposed.

Obviously many of them would be seriously hurt, some dying if they're in proximity. One of the most deadly scenarios that certainly we can think about is an attack on chemical facilities or chemical transport moving through. Again these are like weapons of mass destruction.

Hinojosa: If these chemicals are so dangerous, who do you think should be in charge of overseeing how they're transported through American cities and towns?

Flynn: Well quite simply there has to be federal rules that have teeth to them that both, in terms of set minimum requirements for adequate safety and security and visibility of what's moving in and out across these jurisdictions. There has to be real oversight of this process. That also has to be at the federal level. If you're moving in transportation conveyances, you're moving across state boundaries. So local and individual governors can't basically manage what is a national phenomenon.

There also is an international component to this. Many of these chemicals arrive by sea ... and if the federal government and Washington aren't taking real leadership on this, you get inertia. That's frankly what we've had over the last nearly five years since 9/11 ... there are not credible security measures in place that would deter me if I were a terrorist trying to target this sector.

Hinojosa: I'm sure that many people will hear this and they'll say, 'But how's that possible? We've already been attacked once. How's it possible that this administration is not getting this under control, especially after September 11th?'

Flynn: Well we really have to understand that the war on terror has been divided into two parts. The part that's got virtually all of the resources has been the offensive part. The taking the battle to the enemy... the fact is there are pragmatic measures that can and must be taken right now to reign in this risk. We can't eliminate this risk. But we can reign in the risk of mass casualties and truly destructive outcomes from this critical sector by essentially doing smart things that [have] already been written up and recommended for a long time. But are just gathering dust on the shelves.

Hinojosa: What could this administration do if in fact they wanted to?

Flynn: The most straightforward one is you simply do assessments about what the vulnerability is. A nationwide assessment, plant by plant ... secondly you set some minimum requirements based on where you are. If you're right in a densely populated neighborhood, you need to do more. If you're in a very rural place where if something happened it would be a limited risk of life, less can be done.

Some of their chemicals can basically be made less dangerous by using good chemistry. So in cases we have to require that that be the case if you're operating in a dangerous area. We could also create things like tax incentives for security measures to be adopted.

Hinojosa: So what does this administration say when they hear someone like you saying, "Well here's what you can do?"

Flynn: ... at the end of the day when you really pull back to curtain and you ask "Why" it really boils down to there is just an extraordinary reluctance to intrude in the marketplace ... We're basically in the time where our government is saying or Washington is saying, 'We want to stay out of state and local matters. We want to stay out of the private marketplace. You should take care of yourself.'

The homeland security strategy of the president [was] put together and released in July 2002. That's the last time we've had a strategy update. They quote there's sufficient incentives within the market to safeguard itself. Now I think the lesson that we should be drawing five years away from 9/11 is that there isn't sufficient market incentives for the private sector to safeguard itself. Security is a public good.

Hinojosa: How is it that the government thinks they can trust industry to do the right thing?

Flynn: Well you really have to look at the top of our government, that is, the people who are national security folks. They are not focused on the issues of homeland security inside our nation ...

...We virtually have done no defense. In part because there's a sense of pessimism it can even be done and discomfort that in so doing it, you're going to get into the knickers of states and locals and the private sector. Now when you go to the Department of Homeland Security, the fact is they don't have much authority in this area. Congress didn't give them oversight authority to mandate these vulnerability assessments ... so that's something that Congress would have to address. But here we have not seen much in the way of political will on both sides of the aisle frankly.

Hinojosa: So how good of a job is the railroad industry doing to make us all safe in terms of the transport of these chemicals?

Flynn: When it comes to security, that raises the cost of doing that business. They're very much worried about their competitiveness, vis-à-vis other main players in that industry. And so to a large extent the transportation industry is unable to push too far in the security envelope because if it puts them at a competitive disadvantage by voluntarily taking security measures in place ... so the bottom line is that the industry has not done ... near enough. A big part of that explanation is because they don't have a public sector partner in Washington that they can really sit down and agree upon how to level this playing field.

Hinojosa: Can these dangerous chemicals, in fact, be controlled?

Flynn: Absolutely. It's nonsensical to say that nothing can be done. It's a bit like saying it's impossible to prevent a fatality in an automobile. So let's not make cars safe.

Hinojosa: Do fire chiefs and police chiefs in major cities know when dangerous chemicals are being transported through their town?

Flynn: Often they do not know. They would have to show up on scene and look for a placard ... a sign on the side of the tank saying, 'This is what's in store for you.' They can pick up a phone and contact the rail company and hopefully find out from their operations center what they might be dealing with. But communications may be down. The first responders may be running into a scene where they are at real risk, as well as the people nearby them. There is a lot more that could be done in both tracking movement of these chemicals through our transportation system, and making that information visible to the people who would need to respond if an accident happened. The technology's affordable. [If] we can track Fed Ex boxes around the country ... it should be possible and it is possible to track multi-ton shipments of rail cargo moving often at speeds of under 20 miles per hour.