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Commentary : San Clemente’s Silent Majority Has Learned to Live With Deadly Risk

<i> Fred Grumm is a free-lance writer in San Clemente</i>

Apathy, that most protective psychic maneuver into a world of temporary peace, continues to be man’s easiest escape from reality. Consider our acceptance of health risks imposed by a variety of government and corporate entities and how those risks have developed into widespread public quiescence, and submission.

The current issues bubbling around the bomb factories and their contamination of the land and people will certainly begin to subside in time as the newly enlightened government steps onto the scene.

Only a small element of the public’s frustration will stay alive as the appeasements and adjustments are made, and the affected residents again slip quietly into the background. The absolute clout and sheer immensity of their enemy precludes everything but a partial victory, though peaceful protests are always welcomed. Otherwise, have you tried suing the U.S. government lately?

Examples of this enforced sense of indulgence can be found in many communities. Not all of it is the result of mind manipulations and smooth public relations pronouncements by those who wield the power. Some of it comes from the knowledge that a potentially life-threatening facility has continued to operate for years with an exemplary safety record.

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Although this may help to justify your own protective apathy, don’t ever believe that the inherent threat has simply disappeared because no one has been killed yet.

Such risks will continue to invade your habitat, without your vote or stamp of approval.

In San Clemente, one of Orange County’s more tranquil towns, a story in The Times in October, 1987, began to stir a few local residents. It seems that 426,000 trucks transport 930 million tons of hazardous chemicals on the nation’s highways each year, and one of those chemicals, cryogenic fluorine, goes right through the middle of our quiet city on its way to a TRW plant in the hills.

Few people knew what was happening at that secret plant up there. They learned that TRW has been doing advanced research into laser weapons that use this stuff called cryogenic fluorine, a chemical so lethal that when exposed to the air by an accident on the highway or a spill at the plant, everyone within a radius of 4 miles is in mortal danger from that toxic cloud.

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Some residents who live nearby in Rancho San Clemente complained about not being informed of this threat. But they were told that the police and fire officials in City Hall were aware of each shipment and had worked with TRW in emergency evacuation plans. Do you think this made the residents sleep better at night? Well, surprise, it did. No one moved, and new homes are still selling quite well.

In risk assessments, that plant in the hills and those trucks on the roads have safety records almost unmatched. Something beats it, however, and it’s another facility just outside of town, classified as the highest risk in modern technology. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station--SONGS--and other nuclear power plants have invested billions of dollars to ensure the safe operations of their utilities. It must have paid off, since San Clemente is a very healthy, booming town.

That the real and ominous risks are still there is of little importance to the average city dweller. And no evidence exists that would indicate a bias or negative attitude about SONGS and its location just 2 miles south of the city or the TRW laboratory in the hills 3 miles above town.

Surrounded as we are by these two potential perils, you might assume that the people wonder if they will face a lethal toxic cloud rolling low across the city from the north or a deadly radioactive plume floating over them from the south. But that assumption isn’t correct because the concern is not there.

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The two facilities have long ago been accepted as part of the natural landscape. And those few who object have quietly conceded defeat in their fight against those behemoths.

What some call a trivial concern seeped quietly into the news in October --trivial because they know it will pass and the public will accept the “experts’ ” claim that it is under control. Sure, it is a minor item if you don’t object to some employees at SONGS using the leaves of the Cannabis sativa plant to impair their short-term memory and reduce their ability to perform tasks requiring swift reactions and concentration. And incidentally, it produces a sense of euphoria.

That wonderful marijuana joint has been around forever, and in SONGS for a lot of years. But they’ve started random drug tests and will hopefully remove all of those users. In a technology that can offer us 20,000 deaths within 10 miles after a core meltdown, I don’t think I want that irresistible drug in that giant utility just 4 miles from my home. Will they, in fact, get rid of it all? The what-can-I-do-about-it-anyway syndrome prevails, and once again indifference becomes the watchword.

Sometimes at night on my back deck I am plagued by a nagging little worry as I listen to the traffic on the freeway. And I begin to wonder about all of those trucks hauling hazardous chemicals through my town. Do you suppose any of those drivers have found out about the Cannabis leaves? Who am I kidding?

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