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Belmont Citizen-Herald November 10, 2005

McGaw: Defusing time bomb in Allston

By Bridger McGaw/Guest Perspective

Massachusetts residents have waited too long for our government leaders to take action on what every commuter on the Mass. Turnpike and Storrow Drive sees every day - there is a vulnerable American-built weapon of mass destruction sitting in Allston. Even as we open our state to evacuees from Katrina's wrath, we ignore the real fact that we could have our own mass-evacuation and relief problems in Boston because Houghton Chemical's supply of vinyl acetate monomer can potentially harm a million people living around our city.

You should be shocked. Perhaps you missed the "60 Minutes" broadcast in 2003 of lax security at chemical facilities nationwide or more recently the news release from Congressman Ed Markey in July attempting to warn us again that the Congressional Research Service had re-examined the information supplied from chemical companies to the Environmental Protection Agency detailing over 100 chemical facilities, including Allston, which could expose a million Americans to their lethal toxins.

This is not some pie-in-the-sky-cry-wolf scenario; it is, in fact, an actual scenario from the Department of Homeland Security. Read it yourself at globalsecurity.org. The scenario is designed for training purposes for federal, state and local agencies and first responders, and describes how a terrorist causes a chlorine tank to rupture, killing 17,500 and sending 100,000 to the hospital while another 70,000 self-evacuate the area.

Boston has not practiced what an evacuation of the city would do to the roads, considering the traffic around here is normally hellish. Boston does not have 100,000 hospital beds for the injured or the people who mob hospitals afraid they were exposed. Rhode Island learned the hard way on a smaller scale following the deaths of 100 people in the 2003 Station Nighclub fire, when the after-action report stated "there was not a current, comprehensive mass casualty plan available for local use or at the state level."

Massachusetts public safety leaders should be taking a hard look at our emergency plan to see Houghton Chemical for what it is - a homemade bomb - that should be removed from the banks of the Charles River, the shadow of Fenway Park, and the midst of Boston.

Last week, Gov. Romney spoke to some controversy about the need for surveillance on mosques to prevent unknown future threats, but what actions has he taken to eliminate this existing threat in his own back yard? Regardless of where he is sleeping, Belmont and the State House are in danger. Even those vital primary voters in New Hampshire are currently at risk.

Four years after Sept. 11, Katrina showed the nation that cities, states, and our federal leaders have more work to do in order to be ready to address a large scale disaster - natural or not. Effective homeland security requires us to hold our leaders accountable for failing to coordinate limited tax dollars for technology and training that will make us safer every day while providing the ability to address a disaster we pray never comes.

The 9/11 Commissioners recently endorsed recommendations for effective security of chemical plants to include "using safer chemicals and processes wherever possible," "consistent security standards for all facilities," and "government review of security plans." Everyone knows these facilities are a danger - even the 159,000 members of the American Chemical Council know. But the time for talk is over. Action is required.

In our case, you can't count on the wind to protect you from a Houghton Chemical cloud. Removal of the threatening facility may just be easier and cheaper than evacuating or repairing possible damage to the city. It is surely cheaper in lives and careers than a blame game will be after a disaster.

As voters and neighbors, we must demand our leaders in Congress and the State House pass legislation that requires the $460 billion chemical industry to use existing safer technologies, moves deadly facilities to less inhabited areas, and empowers the Department of Homeland Security with the regulatory power to ensure these facilities are truly safe and secure.

Bridger McGaw is a 1993 graduate of Belmont High School, served in the Defense Department, and is a member of the Council on Emerging National Security Affairs.

Copyright 2005, Belmont Citizen-Herald