The elephant in the living room

The elephant in the living room

The DP World-P&O flap has refocused attention on security problems in foreign and U.S. ports. While the attention is largely welcome, the most serious concerns usually are limited to the potential smuggling of nuclear weapons of mass destruction in containers from abroad.

Whose job is it to prevent "the other WMDs" from endangering urban ports - the bulk chemical weapons-of-mass-destruction cargoes that continue to travel through all major U.S. target cities, including crowded and critical urban ports?

It's not the job of the Coast Guard, whose Area Maritime Security Committees handle physical security and not the reduction of huge chemical WMD risks. It's not the local fire chief's job, nor is it the Department of Homeland Security's. In fact, it's no one's job, with the possible exception of the local city council members. On the contrary, the railroads and the Bush administration are mounting bitter court battles against city ordinances that mandate the rerouting of through rail and truck WMD cargoes, ordinances such as those enacted in 2005 by Washington and now introduced in major target cities (and ports), including Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

Not a single chemical shipper or carrier has a national policy of rerouting even the most dangerous cargoes to avoid the 37 high-threat target cities listed by the DHS. Nor does the U.S. military. No federal agency is tasked to review the secret security plans prepared on the honor system by some 41,000 hazardous materials shippers and carriers, unlike the Coast Guard's mandated review of port security plans.

The use of bulk poison gas chemical cargoes as low-tech, accessible WMDs is clearly much easier than assembling a nuclear weapon to smuggle into a port in a container. We even label chemical cargoes for easy targeting - labeling is essential for emergency responders - and graffiti on many containers advertises how utterly porous the transport system is.

The Port of Baltimore has sensible (Coast Guard-based) safety regulations prohibiting more than 100 pounds of only one kind of hazmat cargo, explosives, from entering the port, and a special safety permit system for some hazmat cargoes that do go through. Is this a kind of rerouting regulation? A ship carrying more than 100 pounds of explosives could go to another port to unload it and then come back with the remaining cargo. Some business-as-usual shipping industry folks even complained that some Coast Guard Captains of the Port were overzealously enforcing the explosives-only regulations, and asked in a national multi-agency meeting that they be told to lighten up.

The U.S. Coast Guard regulation uses quantity-distance calculations to identify unacceptable consequences of a potential explosion that could kill perhaps 1,000 people. But the potential massive consequences of a toxic gas cloud released from bulk industrial chemicals in urban ports are far worse. A chlorine gas cloud released from just one tank car in a dense urban environment could kill 100,000 people in 30 minutes, according to the U.S. Naval Research Labs.

Such an attack could strike a grievous blow to trade; and if you think gas prices are high now, they don't compare to what they would be if an energy port were attacked.

The U.S. chemical industry often boasts that it is the biggest exporting industry in the nation. Hiring Uncle Dick with a shotgun to patrol the fence-line is not a serious security program, nor are high-tech cameras such as those 7,000 in London that did not prevent the recent transit attacks.

Rerouting the most dangerous cargoes where possible is Counterterrorism 101. The unsuspecting port city public remains vulnerable. The Association of American Railroads testified last October that the lack of adequate insurance to cover potential terrorism-related deaths and injuries means the "transport of certain hazardous materials has the potential to be a 'bet-the-business' activity for railroads." It doesn't mention that it's also "bet your Port of Seattle," "bet your Baltimore" and "bet your international trade."

By not rerouting, when possible, such ultra-hazardous cargoes to nontarget ports, we are conveniently pre-positioning these in our target cities for easy and devastating use by terrorists. This is the elephant in the living room of the Bush administration's homeland security program.