Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

BushCo is considering removing hazmat placards from rail cars. The reason, of course, is terrorism.

For decades, emergency-response teams approaching train wrecks have peered at the signs through binoculars to see what dangerous chemicals might be leaking. But federal officials will soon decide on a proposal to remove the placards from all tank cars. Their fear is that terrorists could use them to lock in on targets for highly toxic attacks.
This is stupid for any number of reasons. First, it's a typical example of BushCo's penchant for ignoring real dangers in favor of speculative ones. Hazmat incidents are scandalously common, and often devastating; frankly, our rail system is so accident-plagued that the odd terrorist incident would be a drop in the bucket.

Second, regardless of whether a spill is accidental or not, first responders very definitely need to know what's in any leaking tanks. Sad to say, compliance with current placarding rules is less than ideal. Even in cases where placards are present, they're not always accurate (especially on trucks), nor do they always give a complete picture of a given material's hazardous characteristics. All other things being equal, we'd be much safer if we improved training and compliance than if we simply did away with the placarding system.

Third, if you want to terrorize people with toxic gas, you could make your own out of any number of compounds, the sale of which remains virtually unregulated because these chemicals have friends in high places. If you're a bit more ambitious, you could attack one of our nearly 3500 chemical plants, a good number of which remain unprotected both by BushCo and by the firms that run them. The only thing that's been done to "secure" many of these facilities is hiding evacuation plans and the like from citizens and lawmakers:
People who live near chemical and nuclear plants, dams and oil and gas pipelines complain that it has become harder to find out about disaster plans and environmental hazards, and some have sued for more information. Engineering reports have been stripped from government Web sites, and several agencies are creating new controls on sensitive information that go far beyond the wide-ranging classification system built in the cold war.
And of course, if all else fails, you can always use guns.

What's most disturbing about all this secrecy is that there's rarely any talk of fixing problems; vulnerabilities are being hidden instead of remedied. But does anyone really, truly believe that some terrorist - a white Christian terrorist, in particular - couldn't get hired at a chemical or nuclear plant, or a railyard, and learn about these vulnerabilities first hand? That scenario seems perfectly plausible to me...though not nearly as plausible as a disastrous accidental derailing or explosion in some crowded suburb.

In my opinion, this proposal is intended to advance the cause of government secrecy, and to limit restrictions on the chemical industry. As such, it's a typical BushCo "security" measure...the kind that'll end up getting people killed.


JMS said...

There is kind of an analogous situation in software / computer security between the open source software camp and IP property types (read, microsoft)

Microsoft claims their software is more secure because it is closed source, so no one can see the vulnerabilites.

Most reasonable people find that argument, contradicted by the numerous flaws and viruses exposed daily in Microsoft systems software.

But of course, IP and monopolies butters microsoft's bread. That is the driver, not security.

So, when we start to take hazmat signs of of trains, who benefits?

I doubt this is happening in a vacuum. (Which is what I conceive homeland security to be.)

Some entity is driving it.

robin andrea said...

when the russians gassed the theater where chechen wackos were holding hostages they refused to release any info on the gas used, thus costing several lives and prolonging the agony of many more.

what's good for the russkies is ggod for us.

dread pirate roberts