Tuesday, October 16, 2007

“Were terrorists involved?”

There is an ongoing chemical spill incident in progress outside of Detroit, MI as I write this blog. There was a hydrochloric acid spill at a metal plating company; conflicting reports say anywhere from 500 gallons to 3000 gallons were spilled from a roof top storage tank. Some nearby schools and a senior housing complex have been evacuated. There have been no reports of injuries. The clean-up is under way and the only complicating factor appears to be the possibility of rain showers coming into the area before the material is cleaned up. While no doubt exciting for the people involved, it appears to be a relatively minor chemical spill that is well under control; a perfectly ordinary accident at a chemical facility.


That is it is ordinary until you read the reader comments below a Detroit Free Press article on the subject. The first comment comes at 10:31 am CDT from “Moesgaard” who writes: “Were terrorists involved?” Now I have been reading press reports on chemical incidents for the last five years and that includes the reader comments that more and more news organizations are publishing along with these on-line articles. This is the first time that I have seen a reader ask this question. Even during the Whitley Fuel Depot Fire in Spokane, which was identified as suspicious very early on, no readers suggested the possibility of terrorism.


While hydrochloric acid (in concentrations greater than 37%) is on the DHS Chemicals of Interest List (the still as of yet unapproved Appendix A to 6 CFR part 27), this is a chemical with few off site consequences in most instances. It is on the Toxic Chemical list in the Top Screen, but as an inhalation hazard this chemical is only truly toxic as Hydrogen Chloride gas (no water) or perhaps where concentrated acid reacts with water to form vapor clouds. There are reaction hazards associated with this chemical and certainly skin contact hazards, so this is not a “safe” chemical by any stretch of the imagination.


While this facility appears to fall under the Top Screen reporting requirements (if and when Appendix A is approved), the 11,250 lb STQ equates to about 1200 gallons, and the evacuations indicate that there is a local population to consider as potential targets, there appears to be little else in the news articles that indicate that this facility, an auto parts supplier, would be a Tier 1 terrorist target. Why then would a local citizen jump to this conclusion early in the news reporting cycle?


I am afraid that this has more to do with the relatively high Muslim population in Michigan than anything else. In an area with declining manufacturing jobs, little in the way of a high tech economy, and increasingly deteriorating neighborhoods, it is too easy to equate Muslims with terrorists. Thinking about that brings to mind another kind of terrorist attack.




I have never been in this neighborhood. I know nothing about the company where this spill occurred and I know nothing about its employees. Having said all of that lets look at a hypothetical situation. Suppose that this neighborhood had had a recent influx of Americans of Southwest Asian decent, those who trace their ancestry back to the area spanning Israel to Pakistan. Suppose that a group of these people had pooled their hard earned money and bought out an aging auto parts manufacturing firm. Through hard work, community ownership, low wages, and plowing profits back into the business the company came back and successfully competed in this core business.


There would be some levels of resentment in various portions of the remaining citizens of Detroit. Most of those resentments would remain below the surface and never cause any serious problems. But, there would be small portions of the population that would hold serious grudges about lost jobs taken away by “foreigners”. Hate groups of various denominations would gain support from some of these people. The more violent extremes ofthese groups might find it politically expedient to physically attack such a facility, especially if they could slide the blame for the attack on Al Qaeda terrorists, even if just for a moment. Their attack would serve two purposes, hurt the ‘enemy’ and increase the level of mistrust for that enemy.




The whole point of this exercise is to point out how easy it is to come up with potential reasons for a terrorist attack. It is also a reminder that Al Qaeda and its wannabes are not the only potential terrorists that have to be considered when looking at possible terrorist targets. Terror targets can be selected for who the owners are or who the neighbors are; it makes little difference as long as there is a connection between the target and the cause.

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