Thursday, January 18, 2007

LOS ANGELES Terror Task Force Probes Mercury Spill

Alan note: quite a variety of incidents indicate that terrorist cells are actively testing our ability to react, using items that are as yet not intended for lethal use but provide valuable data for them.

The Mercury spill below, an event easily purchased from a non-terrorist implementer for a few hundred dollars, has enough "danger" to trigger HAZMAT and evaluate our reactions and capability.

The recent mysterious New York "horrible smell" which has been designated as "from unknown reasons" - after first being blamed on New Jersey - would appear to me to be a test of the wind and spread direction and a precursor to "dirty bomb radiation" assessment by terrorists evaluating where best to place or detonate one.

Insofar as possible the enemy does not wish to signal intentions, so uses more subtle approaches to to plan and test lethal moves in the future.

L.A. terror task force probes mercury spill

(HAT-TIP & Thank you Granny)

Given that all I know of this incident is what’s provided by the report and video, I’ll offer the following

1. Elemental mercury presents an extremely low threat, so long as it stays cool (room temp or lower), doesn’t get into food or drinking water and stays in a fairly coherent pool. It used to be common for kids to play with the stuff. It makes coins real shiny, cleans up electrical connections (particularly good for model train and slot car tracks), makes for weird and neat stuff to poke and pour and generally appeals to kids’ playful nature. Some people retain their fascination with it throughout their lives.

2. Mercury that is ingested or inhaled is a big problem. In the body, it does two really bad things. First, it metabolizes into a pesticide and attacks vital organs including kidneys and CNS. Pesticides of all types tend to be very bad for us. Mercury compounds were prized for their germ killing power. Those of you who’ve had Mercurochrome and Merthiolate smeared on cuts and scrapes will be glad to know they contained mercury. So do many contact lens cleaning solutions.

The second effect of mercury is to cause the condition known commonly as “Mad Hatter’s Disease.” Mercury attacks the brain and induces dementia, tremors and eventually, death. The Mad Hatter beautifully illustrates some of the symptoms in the story of Alice in Wonderland.

3. Mercury is very common in the research and academic environment. I’ve cleaned up more mercury spills over the course of my career than all other problems combined. Students and faculty seem to be oblivious to the problems it causes and they do the craziest things with it. I’ve found it in their dorms and home, cars, boats, labs, shops and tons of other places you wouldn’t think it belongs.

Academic types tend to live in their own world and the rules of normal behavior definitely do NOT apply.

We once had high school students doing a summer science camp here at WSU who took a flask of mercury back to the dorm they were staying in. After they spread it up and down the carpeted hallway, into several rooms, they dipped a couple of cigarettes in it and smoked them. Having some left over, they opened a window and poured it in little dollops onto the sidewalk four stories below to watch it splash. That one cost us over $250,000 to clean up and it only cost that little because we didn’t count labor.

4. Mercury that gets spread around in the environment is unbelievably difficult and expensive to clean up. IF the report is accurate and five ounces of the stuff was left laying on the platform for eight hours, LA is facing one hell of a cleanup problem and bill.

With people tramping through the stuff, it was surely spread to every train which took on passengers there. Some people are bound to claim they were injured by exposure and sue.

5. Public safety agencies (apparently everywhere but LA) are aware of this and tend to respond immediately and in full force to limit the problem. This is a dollar driven action. Based upon the above, here’s what I think may have happened in order of likelihood

a). The guy is either a graduate student or tinkerer who uses mercury for a legitimate purpose and screwed up.

b). He is a loony tune that wants to jerk the system around

c). He is testing the system – Given LA’s reported response time, I’d almost say this lowers the chance of a secondary device being set to catch emergency responders (if I were a cynic.


NEW: Investigators unsure whether five-ounce spill was accidental or intentional •

NEW: Spilling mercury has no immediate toxic threat •

NEW: Counterterrorism expert calls it "very strange activity"

The Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating an incident involving an unidentified man who spilled a vial of mercury inside an L.A. subway station just before Christmas and then disappeared after reporting it to transit authorities.

A statement released by the JTTF Wednesday evening shows a picture of the man taken from a frame in a surveillance video. The caption reads: "Wanted for questioning in connection with unexplained activity."

That activity can be seen in a copy of the surveillance video -- obtained exclusively by CNN -- which shows the Pershing Square subway station in Los Angeles late on the evening of December 22, the Friday before Christmas.

In it, the man crouches on the train platform and spills about five fluid ounces of mercury from a small bottle. He then goes to a Metropolitan Transit Authority call box to report what happened.

An accident? Maybe, but authorities would like to know more. And a counterterrorism expert told CNN the incident should set off warning bells. "It doesn't make sense," said Ken Robinson, who used to work in intelligence for the Pentagon and has analyzed dozens of al Qaeda tapes for CNN.

"He's got a heavy metal and he's taking it into a subway. There's no good reason to do that. None." Mercury found in thermometers is dangerous when swallowed, but spilling it would have no immediate toxic effect. That's one reason the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the lead agency in the investigation, believes the spill was just an accident and not terror-related.

Also, the man who spilled it placed a call moments afterward from a call box, alerting authorities to the spill. "At this point we are relatively confident that it is not a credible threat," said L.A. County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore.

But a joint FBI and Department of Home land Security intelligence bulletin released in 2005 warns that terrorists may make calls to test police reactions.

In the case of the spilled mercury, according to the HAZMAT cleanup report, law enforcement did not respond for a full eight hours. Pat D'Amuro, now a CNN analyst, was a top FBI counterterrorism agent. He says it's premature to rule out terror. "I'm not saying that in this video these people are terrorists, but there's some very strange activity that needs to be identified here."

Shortly after the spill in late December, the sheriff's department sent out an alert, saying to be on the lookout for a man described as being "white or Middle Eastern," who is wanted in connection with a "possible act of terror."

In Thursday's statement, the terrorism task force said that although there is "no evidence to suggest these activities are terrorist-related, or even criminal in nature, we are seeking to resolve questions as to the reason and/or motivation of the mercury spill and why the unidentified male had the vial in his possession."

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