Perspectives Concerning Safety and Security

Rob McAleer, Harpswell, February 2004

Why we need to be concerned about safety and security

Having a sense of safety and security is one of the most basic of all human needs, second only to the physical needs of food, water and protection from the elements.  Those who have experienced a loss of safety and security, especially over a prolonged period, clearly comprehend how greatly one’s quality of life is diminished.  Yet, this proposal has us tinkering with this very essential element.  Even if some do not feel at risk because of the distance they may live from the site location or for any other reason, we need to remain cognizant of the impact that is felt by those that do live in close proximity.  We need to acknowledge that the presence of this facility will deny them, at least in part, an essential human need.  And, we need to understand that only those who are impacted can really determine the degree to which they will be denied.  If for no other reason than respect for the primary needs of others, we need to move very carefully in this regard.

Understanding the sacrifice we are asking others to make

Close adherence to federal regulations and industry standards have, to date, resulted in a safety record that, for some, justifies the conclusion that we would not experience an accidental catastrophic event.  Because risk tolerance is a personal and subjective type of thing, review of these same records, including the recent disaster in Algeria, might give others greater cause for concern.  Even the Federal government is now beginning to revisit all of the evidence that is available.  However, regardless of what the risk really is, there are several industries that have equal or better safety records, yet they are not considered “neighborhood friendly.”  Most of us would know instinctively that we would not want to be living next to these types of activities.  We know, although they might be operated safely, that does not necessarily make them an appropriate activity for our community.  Similarly, regardless of what arguments are put before us, very few would choose to move next door to a LNG tank.  Yet, that is precisely the position in which we may be placing good number of our citizens.  Instead of enjoying neighborhoods like the rest of us do, the folks in the vicinity of this project will wake up every day next to a large-scale industrial facility that may have a considerable amount of risk associated with it.  If that is not acceptable for our families, or ourselves, then how can we justify imposing it on our neighbors?  It is hard to believe that our own self-interests may have become so preeminent.  In the past, our national security interests required some of our neighbors to carry the burden of the fuel farm, that came and went in one half the life span of a single generation.  That should not mean they have forfeited future rights that the rest of us enjoy.  They have the right to expect the same sense of safety and security that we all do.

The Threat of Terrorism --  Fact or Fiction

Terrorism must be considered a primary player in the issue of safety and security.  I have heard this concern raised on several occasions when it was unfortunately dealt with it in a less than helpful fashion.  Taking the cavalier approach that we can't live our lives hiding in bunkers, that we need to weigh the probability of an incident against the possible good that can be gained, or that we should just live our lives and not worry about what might happen, is the type of complacent approach our enemies would like us to take, and can well lead to a disaster of severe proportions.  In view of the information that is available to the general public, apathy regarding a terrorist attack in a place like Harpswell is perhaps understandable.  The problem is that what we don't know, in fact, can hurt us.  Anyone that has really studied these people and their activities is invariably left with the certain knowledge that there are a lot of very bad people, at home and abroad, that spend their lives planning ways to hurt this country.  If the situation is right, they have the ability, will, and support to accomplish their goals.  These people and their activities do not necessarily get covered by CNN, but that does not mean that they are not out there.  Whether they are planning a spectacular event such as 9/11 to gain global recognition or narrowing their focus on the heartland of our country to create a climate of fear in even our most secure towns and villages, there is no limit to the atrocities they are willing to commit.  After a high level war game, designed to study vulnerability of infrastructure facilities in the energy and chemical industries, John Hamre, former Deputy Secretary of Defense and currently Director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, stated, “Nuclear power plants remain the best defended parts of the infrastructure, while LNG facilities and chemical storage sites remain a problem.”  I know John Hamre personally.  He is as well informed and objective as almost anyone I know.  Appointed to his Defense Department position during the previous administration, Mr. Hamre is anything but a war hawk or spokesman for the current administration.  Hearing his position on this issue, both that it is recognized as a potential target and that it is even more vulnerable than nuclear power plants, only deepens my conviction that we may be about to move ourselves into harm's way.  It should be noted that this war game included a large number of distinguished experts in the field, including James Woolsley, former Director of the CIA.  Today the odds may be pretty small that Harpswell might make a terrorist's target list.  Build an LNG facility in our town and the odds change dramatically.  We place ourselves in a position of potentially being identified as a high value target and making a quantum move up the target priorities list.  How far up the list we might move cannot be predicted, but it is not a move we should make so lightly as some would have us do.  We should not forget that, if we do vote to put ourselves in the cross hairs of these people, we will not get to vote on whether or not they pull the trigger.

An Incident in Harpswell --  Feasibility and Rationale

Some would have us believe that LNG does not really represent that great of a hazard and that the storage tanks are virtually indestructible.  As regards the dangerous nature of LNG we have heard the statements from a company that stands to make millions if not billions of dollars from this project.  On the other hand, we have seen the opposing comments from an MIT professor whose professional reputation is at stake, as well as the findings of a former engineer with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory regarding a similar analysis.  Even the authors of the Quest Consultants report, that is often cited by industry representatives to support safety claims, state that their report is being misused.  And now, an industry sponsored report, that is beginning to see the light of day, clearly recognizes the possibility of catastrophic events on a scale much greater than previously acknowledged.  As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  What we do know is that we do not require these extraordinary security measures: armed guards, security fences, alarms, lighting, exclusion zones, and Coast Guard escorts, to ship and store less dangerous products.  Given the part of the world that these terrorists come from, we can expect that they would be very familiar with ways to breech pipes, disable mechanical safety systems, and cause a deliberate major release of gas.  Couple those skills with their demonstrated ability to use improvised explosive ignition devices at the right time and place, and we might suddenly find ourselves one small step away from the unthinkable.  The fixed nature of the facility, the fact that it is not a hardened site and the terrain all favor an attacker.  This is not an exceptionally difficult attack to plan for, train for, or execute.  (I say that based on nearly 30 years experience analyzing, planning, training for, and conducting military operations in both academic/field training and contingency environments.)  If total destruction is possible by accident, and we have now seen that it is, then deliberate sabotage must be considered equally devastating.  And, such possibilities are an unfortunate reality of the world we live in, even if it is difficult for us to accept it.  Some folks like to point to potentially more dramatic possibilities than Harpswell as the likely direction they will take.  Such suppositions presume an unrealistic insight into the terrorist mentality and reflect a somewhat superficial consideration of the options.  One only needs to look at our recent state of Orange Alert and the fact that our officials were pointing to possible interest in remote sites, as well as the more populated areas.  In simple language, the biggest lobster does not always taste the best.  Whether they chose what seems to some a more lucrative target, such as Boston, or several smaller more vulnerable sites, such an attack is in keeping with the terrorists’ pattern of asymmetrical warfare matching their strengths against our weaknesses.  Certainly it would be a horrific event for the Town, send shock waves across the Country, and likely damage the industry.  More importantly though, to the terrorists, would be the extent of the general economic losses generated nationwide.  It is the economic losses, as Senator Collins noted recently, not the number of people injured that are the real objective.  And, that is the harsh, but undeniable, reality of why such an attack appeals to terrorists, and why it cannot be so readily dismissed by us as insignificant.

Probability --  What we know and what we don’t know 

There are those who accept the possibility of such an event, but contend vehemently that the probability is practically nil for any number of reasons and, therefore, should not be part of the decision process.  Professional operational analysts, that have the training, experience, and required information access, use a methodical Threat-Vulnerability Integration Process, to evaluate possible enemy courses of action.  They employ a variety of technical experts from different fields to weigh the pros and cons of each course.  If an event is thought to be imminent, or if they have hard intelligence, they might attempt to rate the options from most likely to least likely.  Generally speaking though, the professionals that do this type of thing realize that any analysis of terrorist activity 5 years into the future can only be done at a very broad level.  Their focus would be on the possibility/probability of attacks inside or outside of our borders; chemicals, biological agents, or dirty bombs; infrastructure, food sources or populations.  No experienced professional I have ever known would pretend to know the priority of a specific target or target set in the year 2008 and beyond or contend that we have nothing to worry about by building this in a family neighborhood.  They know that reality is just not that easy.  Professionals would be asking if such an attack could provide results supportive of the terrorists overall objectives, could such an attack be conducted with a reasonable amount of resources, and would such an attack have a high probability of success?  Knowing that the answer to these questions is likely yes, they would then ask, “How do we mitigate the fallout of such an event?”  Clearly the answer to that question does not include putting the facility in the middle of a residential community.  Alternatives such as El Paso Energy’s plans for an off-shore submersible receiving pipeline in lieu of a shore based storage facility reflect a clearer recognition of the problem and an attempt to find a more enlightened approach to this delimma. 

Choosing the right course --  Listen to the experts

Given the seriousness of this issue we would be wise to heed the words of the professionals and not let ourselves be lulled into a sense of complacency by the wishful thinking and assertions, however well-intentioned, of those who are perhaps less qualified to make such statements.  And what are the professionals saying?  On Friday, November 21, 2003, the FBI and Department of Homeland Defense issued a joint terrorist warning to law enforcement agencies, public officials and private security personnel, that said in part, “The Department of Homeland Security remains concerned about Al-Qaida’s continued interest in aviation including using cargo jets to carry out attacks on critical infrastructure as well as targeting liquid natural gas, chemical, and other hazardous materials facilities.”  Regardless of how many other better options we may think they have, it is extremely ill-advised to underestimate the extent they will go to accomplish their objectives and, at best, irresponsible for us to make our decision based on the false assumption that it would never happen here.  We need to remember that, any argument based in whole or in part upon a false assumption is itself a flawed argument.  If we are to be truly honest with ourselves and with each other then we cannot ignore that fact.  Our denials will not make this threat go away.  Avoiding becoming a target in the first place, however, may well be the most prudent protective measure we can take.  Some may interpret this as running away from the enemy.  I think it is more accurately interpreted as not running into the enemy.

Are we violating our own principles

Our Town building codes are based, in part, on the fundamental principle of safety.  Whether one agrees with the specifics of the codes or not, that critical principle upon which they are determined is in fact a sound one.  We have all listened and watched members of the Planning Committee struggle with ways to maintain the overall sense of safety and security that we enjoy in this Town while at the same time dealing with changes that can be good for us.  It would be unfortunate for the Committee and the Town to lose that struggle.  Even the proposed TIF agreement refers to the “betterment of the health, welfare and safety of the inhabitants of the Town.”  This project will not improve or maintain our current level of safety.  To the contrary, it would have an undeniable detrimental effect on it.

The Selectmen --  A critical role to play

Finally, our Selectmen are this Town's elected leaders.  It is their unenviable duty to help us get through the daily process of town governance.  And, it is their responsibility to consider opportunities for bettering the Town.  But, it is also their solemn obligation to protect and preserve the security, safety, well being and welfare of every citizen they are elected to serve.  That obligation may be difficult to uphold at times, because it may require leaders to temporarily subordinate their own personal objectives or visions to avoid jeopardizing their ability to meet this sacrosanct obligation.  I would contend that this proposal represents just such an occasion.  Adherence to this principle is being demonstrated daily elsewhere around the Country and we should expect nothing less in our own Town.  If they chose to make a recommendation, many in the Town will look to them for guidance.  Each of them will have but one vote.  Yet, their decision will have a far greater impact on the Town than even they are likely to be comfortable with.  By the decision date, they will have weighed all of the complex pros and cons.  The question though, that they face, as do we all, is basically clear cut.  How much are we willing to sacrifice for the gains that are envisioned, and how great a disproportionate share of the burden can we justify placing on the shoulders of others?  Great leaders are not measured by the numbers of people that follow them.  That is what shepherds do with sheep.  Great leaders are measured by their courage, compassion, wisdom and judgment.  Their decisions will be the first steps down what may be an irreversible path.

A Recommendation

I would recommend that we all, including the Selectmen, use our courage to resist the promise of excess municipal fiscal well-being that places an undue portion of the related burden on a minority of our neighbors; use compassion to place ourselves in the shoes, in the homes, and at the dinner tables of those who would be most adversely affected; use our wisdom to select a responsible course that balances adversity and benefit equally for every citizen, rather than a callous “in extremes” course that possibly offers more good for more people; and use our good judgment to act accordingly.  Once again, we are dealing with an elemental human need and we must weigh that most essential need against material desires.  This town stands at the edge of a very deep abyss.  I hope we choose wisely and step away from that edge.