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Four Years After 9/11, A City At Risk

A CL Report

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Scenario 1: A ragtag group of neo-nazi terrorists breaks onto the grounds of a large Charlotte chemical company and sets off explosions which release deadly chlorine into the atmosphere, killing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of the region's residents.

Scenario 2: A cargo container from Saudi Arabia holding a homemade nuclear bomb is received at the inland port terminal off Hovis Road in Charlotte. The bomb is detonated and half the city is leveled.

Scenario 3: A large commercial jet flown by terrorists slams into a containment building at McGuire nuclear station, initiating a core meltdown that kills thousands and leaves much of the Charlotte area uninhabitable for eons.

These are just three of several horrific scenarios that a determined group of terrorists of any stripe could still carry out, four years after 9/11 brought heightened concern about security in the United States.

Creative Loafing looked into Charlotte's security from terrorist attacks on the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 strikes. What we found is a bit of good news mixed with some news that curled our hair. We read official documents, sifted through new information, reviewed information gathered for previous CL articles, and talked to experts, scientists, industry representatives and activists. As often happens with stories such as these, we also tried to talk to some people who didn't want to talk to us -- mostly corporations and government agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

There are two bottom lines to this complex story. One is that local officials have done a good job of preparing for the worst. The second is that the federal government has largely failed to secure some of the nation's -- including Charlotte's -- most obvious and potentially catastrophic targets. Whether these local targets would ever actually be attacked by terrorists is unknown and, in any case, isn't the point of this report. The point is that very little has been done to prevent the most catastrophic local terrorism scenarios from happening. Compounding problems from any potential terrorist attack, current evacuation plans for the center city and for the area around our nuclear plants are, to be generous, inadequate and unlikely to work.

The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have acquired equipment and engaged in some re-organization of resources that would be helpful in case of terrorist-related emergencies. For instance, the city now has a high-tech command post at police headquarters and a mobile hospital that is ostensibly the only one of its type in the world. The county bought a mobile operations center with homeland security dollars, as well as $285,000 worth of crisis management software, and a computer system that can call citizens to warn them about an emergency.

In addition, the county used money from the Centers for Disease Control, funneled through the state, to set up a bioterrorism lab; create a Public Health Regional Surveillance Team (PHRST) to coordinate regional exercises to prepare for emergencies; and form an online data gathering system that has created an "early warning" system in case of an unusual pattern of disease outbreaks that could indicate a chemical or bioterror attack.

The Homeland Security Department has spent nearly $200 billion since 2001, helping communities prepare for disaster -- and simultaneously wasting billions on pork-barrel legislation in the guise of homeland security. Overall, the federal government has spent comparatively little on securing the nation's gravest security risks: US nuclear plants, ports, and chemical facilities.

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

• Nuclear plant security is completely in the hands of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, leaving local officials with next to zero influence on preparations for an attack on two nearby nuclear plants.

• After 9/11, the NRC increased security measures at nuclear plants, probably making them harder to penetrate by a ground attack.

• Two critical pre-9/11 security problems at nuclear plants -- vulnerability to catastrophic damage from an airplane crashing into one of the plants' buildings, and the even greater vulnerability of the plants' highly radioactive spent fuel rod storage pools -- have not been dealt with.

• The US General Accountability Office has been critical of the NRC's oversight of nuclear plant security, and says not enough has been done to remedy the problems the GAO exposed.

• A successful terrorist attack on a nuclear plant, resulting in a core meltdown, would leave an area 30-100 miles from the plant largely uninhabitable, with a toll in human deaths and economic ruin that is scarcely imaginable.

• Eighteen Charlotte businesses use enough chemicals to be required to report worst-case scenarios to federal authorities. This includes one Charlotte company whose scenario involves a disaster that could harm nearly 900,000 people.

• The White House has derailed all attempts to require American chemical facilities to improve plant security, and has in fact taken away the EPA's authority to demand those improvements.

• Charlotte, due to its status as an inland terminal for North Carolina ports, is vulnerable to deadly weapons hidden in cargo containers.

• NC ports, as well as nearly all US ports, do not have the equipment necessary to scan incoming cargo. The federal government's examination of shipping data, which ostensibly makes up for the lack of scanning equipment, is inadequate, with only 18 percent of cargo identified as "high risk" examined before entering the US.

• Evacuation plans for the center city and for areas around the two nuclear plants rely on levels of citizen cooperation that defy common sense, rendering them essentially useless.

-- John Grooms

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