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Traffic mess renews evacuation debate
699 acres to be added to Fahnestock Park
Rockland to spread granular larvicide
Neighbors protest truck storage plan
Students honored by county for essays on the environment
Audubon to celebrate 50th anniversary
Crossing into tiger territory
Two companies fined for handling of oil

Traffic mess renews evacuation debate


(Original publication: June 19, 2003)

The massive traffic jams triggered by Tuesday's three-hour shutdown of the Tappan Zee Bridge renewed debate yesterday among residents and officials over the ability to safely evacuate the region in the event of a catastrophic accident or attack at the Indian Point nuclear power plants.

Critics contend the commuter nightmare initiated by one man's suicide attempt from the top of the bridge illustrates how easily major arteries can be rendered inoperable, thereby preventing any evacuation plan from working effectively. Federal Emergency Management Agency and Indian Point officials contend that existing emergency plans are flexible enough to handle such a situation.

"The plan provides alternatives as to where the officials would move people," FEMA spokesman Mike Beeman said. "It takes them through all the major roadways and shows them what the alternatives are."

Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, who in recent months has been pushing to have the plants closed, said the plans work "if we have enough time and there are no impediments."

"However, that's not taking sabotage into account, and you don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure this out," Spano continued. "There are all kinds of scenarios that could impede an evacuation if there was a purposeful effort by terrorists to do that.

"Our preparation deals with accidental incidents and has never dealt with terrorist scenarios at major or multiple points outside the plant," he said. "It makes the plant dangerous and the plan unworkable under certain circumstances, and no one can deny that."

Spano will speak about Westchester's emergency plan and related Indian Point issues at a forum beginning at 7 tonight in the Croton-on-Hudson Municipal Building, 1 Van Wyck St. The forum is sponsored by the Croton Close Indian Point group.

The effectiveness of emergency plans for the region has been a focus of concern since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Critics say the plans are unrealistic and assume people will wait their turn to evacuate and leave in an orderly manner as directed by officials. That position was bolstered by a report released in January by former FEMA director James Lee Witt, whom Gov. George Pataki hired in the fall to evaluate the plans for Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Orange counties. Witt said that because of a dense population and limited infrastructure, the region could not be safely evacuated following a terrorist attack at the plants.

The report prompted Spano and the other county executives to refuse to sign previously routine, annual certifications of the emergency plans for FEMA. The State Emergency Management Office, citing the counties' actions, refused to certify the plans as well. Indian Point is required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to have emergency evacuation plans for the 10-mile region around the complex as a condition of its operating license.

The Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, is evaluating the plans to determine if they should be certified as effective, despite the objections of the county executives. If the agency denies certification, it begins a lengthy process that could lead to the plants' closure.

"The unfortunate incident on the Tappan Zee Bridge indicates it only takes one person to tie up traffic for hours," said Marilyn Elie, head of the Westchester Citizens Awareness Network. "All of our major roadways are very fragile when it comes to a deliberate attempt by a determined group of individuals. Route 9 and Route 17 go through many small towns with gas stations and industries, and an attack on any of these would tie up traffic and make it utterly impossible to move."

Supporters of the plans insist they are flexible enough to encompass any situation, including the shutdown of major arteries.

Beeman said that if there were an emergency at Indian Point "not everyone has to be evacuated."

"The radiation plume travels with the wind, and you only have to move the population where the plume is headed," Beeman said. "As long as the population listens to the leadership, then you won't have everybody on the roadways and you won't have mass evacuations.

"There has been this hysteria based on misrepresentation that if there is an event at Indian Point it will irradiate everything within a 10-mile area," he said. "But that is not the case. Radiation will always travel with the wind. Emergency planners will look at where the wind is headed and these are the only people who have to be moved."

Jim Steets, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns the plants in Buchanan, said that though emergency plans and drills have not included scenarios in which terrorists shut down major roadways, they were not necessary.

"You don't have to have that kind of detail in a plan," Steets said. "We aren't talking about robots who are programmed to do specific things and if you throw a wrench into the works the whole thing breaks down. We are talking about people who can make judgments and decisions. They will use their experience and God-given smarts and compensate one way or another."

Send e-mail to Roger Witherspoon




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