Water Woes in a Post 9/11 World

In the nation’s capital—and across the country—authorities at water treatment plants are taking action against the possibility of terrorist strikes

06-01-2004 // Heidi Ridgley

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: Flames engulf the Pentagon, another hijacked plane veers toward Washington, D.C., and at the city’s Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant sit seven rail cars filled with a toxic chemical—an enticing terrorist target four miles from the U.S. Capitol. If exploded, the chlorine inside the cars could emit a plume capable of killing thousands of people within minutes.

After doubling security at the 150-acre site and calling for U.S. Coast Guard patrols along the adjacent Potomac River, Blue Plains Deputy Manager Mike Marcotte knew he’d need to take even stronger measures. "After a sleepless night, I told my engineers, ‘We need to come up with a plan to get the chlorine out of here as quickly as possible,’" he says.

More than two years after New York’s World Trade Center towers toppled, no federal requirements mandate that facilities using dangerous chemicals employ the best possible means to reduce hazards. But in some cities, such as the nation’s capital, authorities at water treatment plants are stepping up on their own to defuse the problem by switching to a chemical safer than chlorine gas, which—even in low concentrations—can burn eyes and skin and inflame the lungs.

If released into the atmosphere chlorine hangs low, forming a lethal cloud that can travel two miles in only 10 minutes and remains acutely toxic for 15 miles, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The substance is so deadly that Germany used it as a chemical weapon during World War I. "Fortunately," says Environmental Defense researcher Carol Andress, "a cost-effective, safe alternative exists."

It’s called sodium hypochlorite, and it’s the difference between a highly concentrated poisonous gas and a strong version of household bleach. D.C.’s water authority made the switch within 100 days of 9/11.

Thirteen of the country’s other biggest sewage treatment plants, including those in Atlanta, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, have also eliminated chlorine. "This means 20 million people are no longer at risk of serious injury from a chemical release," says Andress. "But it’s still absurd to think that in other highly populated areas such a dangerous gas is still being used."

And the worry isn’t just in terms of acts of terror. An inadvertent accident could occur on site or during transport. In a highly populated area, a chemical release could potentially match or exceed the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, where an acutely toxic pesticide leaked from a Union Carbide plant, killing 2,000 people and injuring tens of thousands.

Yet, a terrorist targeting hazardous materials no longer sounds farfetched in the wake of September 11. Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader in the hijackings, reportedly questioned a pilot about a Tennessee chemical plant and water reservoir as they flew above it. Inside sat 250 tons of toxins. Outside lived 60,000 people within the shadow of a potential chemical cloud.

But back in Washington, a city that knows it’s high on the list of terrorist strike sites, residents at least have one less worry. "Today, if a terrorist blew up a tank truck filled with sodium hypochlorite at Blue Plains, all that would happen is that his clothes would get discolored," says Marcotte.

At about 25 to 50 cents more per customer a year, adds Andress, making the switch is "a no-brainer" that means the community—including plant workers—is safer from terrorist attacks, operational mishaps and catastrophic accidents. "It may cost a little more," she says, "but the peace of mind is worth it."

Heidi Ridgley lives 10 miles from D.C.’s Blue Plains treatment plant

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