Downtown Sewage Plant Could Be Toxic Target - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

Downtown Sewage Plant Could Be Toxic Target

(Story created: 11/13/06)

Every day, downtown Nashville fills with people, who come here for all sorts of reasons.

Yet, most are completely unaware of the danger that's never far away.

As the view from Sky 5 shows, it can be found just on the north edge of downtown, stored inside 90-ton tank cars on property owned and operated by Nashville's own government.

"You can kill a hundred thousand people in half an hour," says homeland security consultant Fred Millar, who helped Washington D.C. develop its homeland security plans.

He says chlorine, like that stored here at Metro's downtown sewage treatment plant, could be turned into a deadly weapon of mass destruction.

"We are making it so easy for the terrorists," Millar tells NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

"It's like an open invitation to the terrorists, 'Come and use this weapon.'"

Yet, Scott Potter -- the head of Metro Water Services -- says he's just fine with the situation that exists today in Nashville.

"We are very aggressive with our safety and security," Potter tells Phil Williams.

"We have two fences with razor wire on top. We have motion-detecting video cameras 24/7. We have an armed guard on site 24/7. All that results in a very safe environment."

But, with Millar as our guide, we discovered Metro's chlorine tanker site right beside a public road.

"So is there a problem here?" Williams asks.

"This is a big problem," Millar answers. "For us to be able to walk up this close to a major poison gas storage facility is not good."

 In fact, we did find fences, cameras and no trespassing signs -- but little else to deter an attack.

"You can shoot something through the fence," Millar says. "You can go over the fence. You can put something under the track before it gets here."

Williams: "If someone were to drive by, blow up a chlorine tanker, how many people would be killed?"
Potter: "I don't think that's going to happen because of our security."

Williams points out the armed security guard to Millar.

"Does he look like he's ready to fight off terrorists?" Williams asks.

Laughing at the sight of the lone guard, Millar says, "This is unfortunately very typical."

That's right: the security guard is the city's defense against terrorists.

Williams: "If there were a real terrorist attack, one armed guard could do absolutely nothing."
Potter: "One armed guard can call the police."
Williams: "Which doesn't stop the attack, though - correct?"
Potter: "Phil, I can tell you what we have done.  I can't speculate."

In fact, federal planners have simulated how a toxic cloud might spread over a major city, killing thousands.

A federal "national planning scenarios" document suggests such an attack would take "less than 20 minutes."

Williams: "By the time police get here, it's over, right?"
Potter: "Presumably, Metro police are going to send more than one person to the chlorine tanker site."
Williams: "By the time they send 10 people here, it could be over."
Potter: "Phil, you are speculating."

But while we were at the tanker site, a Metro water security official approached us to ask that we not identify its location -- even though we had found it without any help from anyone.

Potter: "My preference is that none of our facilities are discussed.  If we are not discussed, then it's not an issue."
Williams: "You think the terrorists don't think about this?"
Potter: "I'm not a terrorist, Phil.  I don't know what they think about."

But Millar says "it makes no sense to say, 'Let's be quiet about this or you'll help the terrorists.' The terrorists know about this.  It's only the citizens who don't know at what high risks they are kept."

Williams: "You don't have to use chlorine, do you?"
Potter: "There are alternative disinfectants, that's correct."

And facilities have made the switch from chlorine -- all across the country -- to make their cities safer.

But Nashville has no such plans.

Potter: "Metro Water Services has used chlorine safely for almost 50 years without incident."
Williams: "But didn't a lot change after 9/11?"
Potter: "That's why we put the armed guard there."

And that armed guard, Potter is betting, will be enough to keep the city safe.

Metro Water has told the feds there are almost a million people who live in what's called the "worst-case" zone -- that's within 25 miles.

But the number who would be killed or injured depends on which way the wind is blowing.

Again, we're not revealing anything that's a big secret to the terrorists.

In fact, the facility we showed is at Metro Water headquarters, which is the first place a terrorist would probably start.

Background:

U.S. Homeland Security:
Al-Qaeda "targeting chemical, hazardous materials facilities" (November 2003)
"National Planning Scenarios" (April 2005)
U.S. Government Accountability Office:
"Securing Wastewater Facilities " (March 2006)
"Wastewater Facilities: Experts' Views" (January 2005)
Center for American Progress:
"Preventing Toxic Terrorism" (April 2006)
U.S. PIRG:
"Protecting Our Hometowns" (March 2002)
Washington, D.C., Council:
Council Member's Page on Terrorism Prevention Act (2005)

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