Missile Envy

Last night, a Standard Missile 3 rocket, launched from the USN Lake Erie, an Aegis-class cruiser in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii, struck a disabled spy satellite 150 miles over Earth. It is hoped the missile destroyed the satellite (confirmation of a “kill” will be made later today) and saved the planet from peril.

Meanwhile, here on the Earth’s crust, the Environmental Protection Agency – part of the same federal government as Aegis-class cruisers and Standard Missile 3 rockets, only not as glamorous – has a list of 100 industrial facilities that use chemicals hazardous to public health.

The satellite struck by the missile was called USA-193, also known as National Reconnaissance Office launch 21, also known as NROL-21, also known as L-21. It was a spy satellite. I suppose that accounts for all the aliases. It was launched on 14 December 2006 and the NRO won’t say exactly what L-21 was designed to do, but whatever it was, it didn’t do it. Ground control lost contact with L-21 hours after launch. Rumors that L-21 had gone over to the Russians are just that, rumors. (And John McCain’s dealings with that blonde lobbyist chick were strictly above-board.)

That list over at EPA, however, says if there was an accident or terrorist attack at any one of the 100 industrial facilities, the lives one million or more citizens – also known as taxpayers, also known as consumers, also known as the only people keeping our crappy economy afloat – would be in danger.

Satellite L-21 weighed 5,000 pounds, was the size of a bus and was traveling 17,000 miles an hour when it was struck by the Standard Missile 3 rocket. Of those 5,000 pounds, 1,000 were comprised of frozen hydrazine fuel. According to Marine Gen. James Cartwright, if L-21 had been allowed to enter Earth’s atmosphere and if its hydrazine fuel did not burn up on re-entry and if L-21 had landed in a populated area, then it’s possible the now-gaseous hydrazine could cover an area equal to two football fields. (The odds of this happening are several million to one.) If humans were exposed to the gaseous hydrazine for an extended period, Gen. Cartwright said, they might possibly experience some discomfort breathing.

If there was to be an accident or terrorist attack at an industrial facility using chlorine (many of the facilities on EPA’s list use chlorine), it’s estimated that an urban area of 14 square miles would be affected. The US Naval Research Laboratory estimates that if an accident or attack occurred to a 90-ton chlorine rail car in Washington, DC, (these rail cars pass within a few blocks of the Capitol every day) the death rate could be as high as 100 people per second for the first 30 minutes. An accident or attack at Kuehne Chemical Company in South Kearny, NJ endangers 12 million people in the Newark-New York City region.

The federal government spent $60 million to shoot down L-21 with a Standard Missile 3 rocket. The Navy responded quickly to the threat, before the satellite could fall from orbit. The US chemical industry has spent as much as $74 million lobbying Congress to prevent the drafting of legislation that would force industrial facilities to make their hazardous chemicals secure or convert manufacturing to less-hazardous chemicals. The federal government has reacted slowly. The Department of Homeland Security was founded on September 11, 2002 and has yet to take action to protect citizens from the threat posed by hazardous chemicals at industrial facilities. It has, however, blocked cities and states from taking action on their own to protect citizens.

Of the 17,000 objects we’ve launched into space, this is the first one we’ve shot down. Some say we did it because the Chinese shot down an old weather satellite in 2007 and the US didn’t want the Chinese to look uh…. Um…well, it gets a bit Freudian here. I think we all know what we’re talking about. Others say we shot L-21 down because we didn’t want our non-functioning spy equipment to fall into the hands of the Chinese or the Russians.

Of the 100 plants on the EPA’s list, none have yet had a catastrophic explosion, of the kind that hit the Texas refinery a few days ago, or the Georgia sugar plant a few weeks back. If it does happen and people die, I don’t know what the folks at the Department of Homeland Security will say. They can’t say they weren’t warned.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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