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Nation of Poisons
Page 4

Public knowledge can even enhance security. Bass points to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment works in the Washington, D.C., area. An RMP noted that a railcar full of chlorine was at the site and that in a worst-case scenario, a cloud of deadly chlorine could reach the White House. Consequently, environmental groups -- before September 11 -- lobbied for the car's removal. After the attacks, tons of liquid chlorine and sulfur dioxide were quietly taken out of the facility.

Some government agencies, such as EPA, have said that they will check the material removed from their websites and consider reinstating it. This step is critical, notes Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. "Otherwise, people will take advantage of the situation to remove information to serve agendas other than security."

The clampdown is a secrecy windfall for industries that have been fighting public information initiatives for years. For instance, thanks to industry influence, public reporting of chemical industry accidents is so spotty that no one knows how many deaths they cause, says D.C. environment writer Joseph A. Davis. (The most comprehensive estimate to date was 256 a year, on average, from 1987 to 1996.) Has the no-need-for-you-to-know crowd exploited September 11? After the attacks, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-business lobby, called for a "permanent removal" of chemical facility RMPs from both EPA's website and its reading rooms around the country. The American Chemistry Council asked EPA to block all public access to the reports detailing worst-case accident scenarios -- reports which were only available in reading rooms. The pipeline industry has lobbied Congress to remove right-to-know provisions from pending legislation.

NRC chairman Richard Meserve called September 11 a wake-up call. But the alarm that rang that awful day called the nation to do more than improve fences and hire more guards. The country must look at itself anew. As nuclear weapons expert Matthew Bunn observes, "A world that includes highly capable terrorist organizations with a global reach is a world that is less favorable to technologies that concentrate immense quantities of value and potential vulnerability in one place."

Which means that an effective anti-terrorism strategy must reduce the long list of industrial sites that are high-value targets. Environmentalism meets national security: There can be common ground between hawks and greens.

Lessening the nation's reliance on toxic products and toxics-producing processes is a tougher and grander -- and more profound -- task than tightening borders, improving coordination among the many government agencies with antiterrorism responsibilities, or stockpiling vaccinations for a biological attack. It calls for an examination of society's relationship with assorted poisons. Is having the whitest of white paper worth the widespread presence of chlorine? Should the American appetite for cheap power be fed by reactors churning out lethal waste sought by terrorists? Ultimately, the goal is to detoxify American society. Prior to September 11, there was good reason for doing so. Afterward, the need is more evident. And this is a challenge unlikely to be met if the public possesses less, rather than more, information about the vulnerabilities we have created for ourselves.

Federation of American Scientists

NRDC on nuclear weapons and waste

OMB Watch

To take action on security legislation, see NRDC's Earth Action Center.

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OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council