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Opinion: A daily danger — chemical sites, rail tank cars

(The following column by David Wiegand appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on July 1.)

SAN FRANCISCO — Viewers of a certain age may take a gander at the two-part "Expose" episode "Think Like a Terrorist" and recall those "duck and cover" safety films from the Cold War era (“Think Like a Terrorist: Part 1,” 2 p.m. Sunday; Part 2, 2 p.m. July 8, KQED. Part of “Expose” series, produced and written by Joe Rubin, written and edited by Eli Despres.). No one ever dropped "the big one" on the United States back then, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, proved our vulnerability. And that's the reason you have to take "Think Like a Terrorist" seriously, no matter how cynical you may want to be.

"Think Like a Terrorist" is the account of a crusade by a reporter at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to prove that while the flying of an airliner into a building may be a dramatic way of carrying out a terrorist attack, we need to be aware of more prosaic points of vulnerability, such as chemical plants, petroleum refineries and, most of all, tank cars filled with lethal gases such as anhydrous ammonia, which, we are told, seeks out moisture. That means that, if released into the air, it would zero in on human eyeballs and lungs.

Carl Prine, a former Marine, looks like Clark Kent, but if he were Superman, he would have had an easier time of it crisscrossing the country and strolling casually into any number of chemical plants and refineries to prove their vulnerability. Rick Hind of Greenpeace claims that when it comes to security, American chemical plants are "porous," and Prine proved it again and again for the first series he wrote for the Pittsburgh paper.

The reaction to those articles was substantial. Many readers denounced Prine and his paper for giving the terrorists ideas of where to strike next. But some legislators, at least, took the evidence seriously. New Jersey's Jon Corzine, then a U.S. senator and now the state's governor, offered a bill to tighten security at U.S. chemical plants, which was lobbied into oblivion by the American Chemistry Council.

CBS' "60 Minutes" sat up and took notice of Prine's reporting and sent Steve Kroft to tag along on another series of chemical plant walkabouts, one of which resulted in the two being cited for "defiant trespassing." Ooh! That'll teach 'em.

Two years ago, Prine signed up for the Pennsylvania National Guard because he believed there was work to be done in Iraq. On four occasions during his year in Iraq, he was nearby when improvised explosive devices went off. He lost friends, he says. And he still suffers from migraines because of his proximity to the explosions.

When he returned to Pennsylvania, he launched another national crusade, this time to prove the vulnerability of the nation's 150,000 miles of railroad tracks and, specifically, the thousands of tanks cars rumbling over them every day. Prine discovered that a small but efficient government agency called the Federal Railroad Administration had really been doing its job since 9/11, carefully documenting hundreds of points of vulnerability along the nation's rail system. The trouble is, little action was taken on the agency's recommendations.

Tanker cars are especially vulnerable because they often sit idle and unattended for hours, if not days, at a time. Prine would walk up to idle tank cars and leave his business card to show how easy it would be for a terrorist to slap a dab of plastique explosive on their sides.

Among the areas cited by the agency as needing improved security is the East Bay's Martinez, where Prine was easily able to get close to a number of idle tanker cars.

Once again, Prine was accused of helping the enemy with information it of course would never have thought of on its own. Henry Posner, one of his detractors, accuses Prine and his paper of "profiting from the promotion of hysteria." Posner's company, the Railroad Development Corp., operates railroads in the United States and South America. He dismisses the idea that anyone would want to hijack a train, because its movement can be controlled and restricted. But as Prine counters, no one has to take a train anywhere to turn it into a rolling bomb: Trains routinely wind through the nation's largest cities.

The two half-hour segments of the episode are probably a half hour too long. Some of the talking heads seem a bit unnecessary, such as the graphic artist at the paper who describes how a map of the U.S. railway system was devised. Two of Prine's bosses get a whole lot of screen time to say how much they support him.

That said, the episode is important because its point is obvious and far too often overlooked or ignored. Prine describes his tactics for wandering around chemical plants as "hiding in plain sight." Sometimes a nation's points of vulnerability can be described that way, too.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

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