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On May 12, 2005 the Department of Homeland Security staged a spectacular joint terrorist preparedness exercise in Romulus, Michigan and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport called "Operation Vigilant State, a Surface to Air Threat Exercise." Citizens were informed that military aircraft would be flying in and around Metro Detroit, and warned not to panic. The daylong event tested the response plans, communications and interoperability of a host of governmental exercise participants.
"It may look like the real thing," the press was told. But when the real thing happened, just 3 months later, on August 9, 2005, homeland security was caught unaware, breached from within.
"It was like an atomic bomb went off," said Aurora Martin of Romulus, recalling that night. "My son lives next door and came running over. His walls were rattling. The firemen came yelling on loudspeakers and banging on doors telling us all to get the hell out of here."
At first it was suspected in the media that a terrorist plane had slammed into "Environmental Quality Resource Recovery," a Romulus based chemical plant, resulting in the catastrophic toxic explosion. Orange yellow flames careened into the upper reaches of the sky. Many residents spoke in horror of a "black mushroom cloud" that spread soot, ash and "black hamburger like" debris over rooftops, yards, churches, bikes and an elementary school, Roosevelt McGrath, that sits a few hundred yards from the facility.
No alarm sounded but the eight workers at the factory had run frantically off site after hearing a hissing noise from an ammonia tank. The working class community surrounding the factory, totaling about 3,000 households, were given no prior warning. They were rapidly evacuated to area shelters and not permitted to return home for 2 days.
The explosion had immediate physical health effects. Fifty people, including residents and firefighters, were seen at Oakwood Hospital for burning sensations in their lungs and associated ailments.
According to an EPA finding, 32 above ground tanks, some ranging in size up to 15,000 gallons, "were impacted." Four hundred toxic drums were destroyed.
"I never even knew there was a chemical factory over there," said Martin. There was. And now it’s mostly gone.
Nothing to Worry About?
On August 15th, MI Congressman John Dingell requested a full accounting from government agencies, including the EPA and the Department of Homeland Security, about the chemical hazards and the advance preparations for a disaster by EQ Resource Recovery. For example, he asked whether EQ had been required to file an emergency response plan.
"There has been a need to improve security and safety at the nation’s chemical plants for years," he said, "Despite my repeated requests and those of other Members of Congress, the federal government has made almost no progress toward a comprehensive program for securing chemical facilities across the nation."
Carolyn Merritt, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, agrees. She goes so far as to raise the specter of Bhopal, the world’s worse chemical catastrophe, which killed thousands within hours of a poisonous gas leak from an Indian pesticide plant in 1984.
Merritt told reporter Kristen Hays, "Over and over again, we see companies–even those covered under process safety rules–committing the same kind of management errors, mechanical errors and process errors that set up the facility at Bhopal for the accident."
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is currently investigating a number of serious chemical explosions which have impacted neighboring communities. These include 2005 explosions at BP America in Texas City, Texas, and one at the Acetylene Service Company in Perth Amboy, NJ, which killed three workers. It also includes 2004 explosions Marcus Oil and Chemical in Houston, TX, (felt more than 20 miles from the site), Sterigenics Ethylene Oxide in Ontario, CA (rendering the facility unusable), and another at Formosa Plastics in Illiopolis, IL. That explosion killed five workers and forced a community evacuation.
For a mother running in tears in the night with her infant from a catastrophic mushroom cloud spewing toxic debris over her head, as happened in Romulus Michigan in August, it doesn’t matter if the "terrorist" is al-Qaeda or one of the chemical complexes named above.
Off the Radar
Romulus is located in Wayne County, Michigan. In FY 2004 Wayne County received $23.5 million (which it shared with Detroit) in Homeland Security Grant awards. Romulus directly received $256, 818 in FY 2004. But these governmental agencies had apparently paid little or no attention to the "Surface to Air Threat" (i.e. a possible pollution plume from EQ Resource Recovery) in their midst on May 12, 2005, the day of the exercise.
It’s not as though it wasn’t noticeable to them. EQ is the nation’s third largest facility that blends toxic wastes for fuels in cement kilns. In 2002 EQ handled or treated 81,181,711 pounds of toxic waste in the Romulus neighborhood, including 13,485 pounds released into the air of the surrounding community. According to the federal government’s own Toxics Release Inventory, EQ has a cancer risk score that places it near the 100th percentile as "dirtiest/worst facilities in the U.S." Two tons of this pollution are recognized carcinogens with carbon tetrachloride being the top cancer risk.
EQ has been cited 68 times over the past two decades. On May 11–the day before Operation Vigilant State — an inspection by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found three violations at EQ including not storing hazardous waste in the areas specified by its license.
One wonders why this wasn’t alarming enough to draw increased scrutiny by Wayne County officials.
Tracey Easthope, Director of the Environmental Health Program at the Ecology Center is engaged in a study on the likely short-term and long-term effects the pollution. "There could be traces of several dangerous pollutants in the fallout," she said. "It’s an incredible toxic stew, and people who live there are going to deserve a lot of answers."
Dr. Michael Harbut, an environmental and occupational medicine expert said it is possible that microscopic particles suspended in the burnt solvents could have lodged in the lungs of people.
It’s also known that numerous by-products could be created from the explosive interactions. These can drift into the soils, rugs and wood throughout ones home. That is why residents were told to turn off their air conditioners before evacuating, to avoid sucking in the airborne contaminants.
Citizens who can afford it often flee from these insecure homelands.
A plumber who lives a few blocks from the Romulus Michigan explosion showed off his car which had a number of black, gummy patches on it, six weeks after the firestorm. "They’ve not come off even after eight car washings," he said. He worries about the health effects of material like that on his family’s lungs. "My wife has asthma and complained about throat burning but we decided not to join the class action lawsuit," he said. "We’re moving."
How to Make Toxins Invisible & Create Illusions of a Safe Homeland
There is often little citizen unrest about potential chemical explosions in their midst. One reason many Romulus neighbors are unaware of the true nature of the Environmental Quality corporation is its signage.
A pretty green yin yang EQ image adorns its façade and trees shield passer-by from the inner workings. Its Orwellian name, focusing on "quality," connotes safety, distracting citizens from the yang within the yin, which is "dangerous to your health." Imagine if "Toxics Central" was the name presented to the public.
Brad van Guilder, an organizer with the Ecology Center, an environmental group located in Ann Arbor, expresses an even broader concern about the need to eliminate the use of toxic substances in general.
"The EPA has a Toxic Waste reduction program that is based on reducing the use of these toxic materials," he says. "Allowing a market where this toxic soup is reprocessed as a fuel to be burned so we have to breathe all of this crap, and transporting hazardous waste through a densely populated area and having it sit around in storage in huge quantities as a time bomb, contradicts the goals of the EPA program."
BRIAN McKENNA can be reached at: MCKENNA193@aol.com