Editorials

“Time to be heard” by Bob Baird

“All you had to do was read Saturday’s newspaper to see the fallacy hiding behind the main news headline of the day: “Feds approve evacuation plan.” The sub-headline went on to explain: “Indian Point crisis response rated safe, over local protest.”

On Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ruled that the region around the nuclear plants — which includes a large segment of Rockland — could be evacuated safely in the event of an emergency.

Countless local officials in municipalities from four counties have argued that’s unrealistic; the congestion we experience almost daily would render an evacuation all but impossible.

Friday, the region was a living laboratory, an experiment in just how bad traffic can get when something relatively minor goes wrong on an ordinary day.

It started with a fatal accident on the George Washington Bridge about 5:30 a.m.

Twelve hours later, traffic wasn’t yet back to normal.

The crash involved a tractor-trailer that hit a beam and burst into flames. The smoke from the fire forced all traffic on the bridge to come to a stop until just before 7 a.m. That’s when the lower level and the eastbound upper level reopened.

The westbound upper level, where the accident took place, remained closed until 3:45 p.m. The ensuing traffic jam stretched the width of the Bronx, through Westchester County and into Connecticut.

There, it snarled both north- and southbound traffic on Interstate 95, with some help from several minor accidents and a car fire.

An alternative route in Westchester also got snarled when a truck entered the southbound Hutchinson River Parkway and got jammed under an overpass about 2 p.m. Those lanes didn’t reopen for about four hours.

And if there’s a problem on the George Washington Bridge, the Tappan Zee Bridge usually feels it. Friday was no different, with slow going in both directions during the morning rush and typically heavy westbound summer Friday afternoon traffic.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Often.

If you add in rain, it’s only worse.

Add a holiday and it’s worse still.

Add the urgency of an accident at Indian Point, and all bets are off.

But that’s a bet FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are taking. The 300,000 or so of us who live in the 10-mile evacuation zone are the chips.

On Friday, FEMA pushed us forward and called, “Let it ride.”

The decision disregards the findings of former FEMA director James Lee Witt, who was commissioned by Gov. George Pataki to study the evacuation plans. Witt said the plans wouldn’t work, particularly in the event of a fast-moving scenario, such as a terrorist attack.

Pataki, who was mayor of Peekskill and now lives in Garrison — both within the 10-mile evacuation zone — says Witt’s report was accurate and was the basis of the state’s refusal to certify the Indian Point plans. But the governor has chosen to hide behind the bureaucracy.

“The governor has steadfastly maintained that such issues are most appropriately reviewed by the federal agencies charged with such responsibilities,” Pataki spokeswoman Mollie Fullington said Friday in a statement. They should be accomplished, it went on, “in a uniform fashion across the nation in consultation with state and local agencies.”

But the area we live in is unlike any other surrounding a nuclear plant.

We have more people, more cars and a network of roads so overburdened that a fatal crash or a fuel spill can set off traffic jams stretching for miles and hours, all without the tension and emotion that would attach to a nuclear emergency.

Pataki knows that as well as the other officials at the federal, state, county and local levels who want Indian Point closed before we learn — too late — just how badly an evacuation could fail.

It’s long past time for Pataki to speak out loud and clear, demanding better for his constituents and insisting the plants be shut down.”

This editorial originally appeared in the Journal News

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