EPA scout plane on lookout for toxic chemicals at GOP convention

Agency teams with Army on airborne detection system deployed for high-profile events.

The massive effort to protect the GOP convention has meant bringing in special units from some surprising places -- including a scout plane belonging to the Environmental Protection Agency.

What's the EPA doing in the counter-terrorism business, let alone in the air? The answer is that a toxic chemical doesn't care whether it is released by terrorists or by accident, and that the best way to track such choking poisons is from high, high above.

Ten years ago, a chemical plant exploded outside of Sioux City, Iowa, killing four people and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 residents in a wide swath of Iowa and Nebraska. Hazardous-materials teams struggled to track the drifting cloud of ammonia without endangering themselves.

"We spent a lot of time running around in vehicles with handheld monitors, often running into the chemical," said Gary Brown, emergency management coordinator for Woodbury County, Iowa, which includes Sioux City.

One of Brown's helpers in 1994, EPA official Mark Thomas, recalled, "I said to myself: There's got to be a better way of doing this."

Two months later, he came across an Army program to build an airborne chemical detector. With the Army providing the technology, Brown contributing the local users' perspective, and the EPA footing the bill -- about $500,000 a year -- Thomas put together a program called ASPECT (short for Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology). Thomas is now the ASPECT director.

ASPECT's array of sensors and analysis software are mounted on a twin-propeller Aero Commander 680; the equipment allows the three-person crew to map the location of a toxic cloud and to determine its composition. The system can download data to a wide range of wireless networks but, if necessary, it can also parachute a special terminal to first responders on the ground.

Since ASPECT became operational in April 2001, it has been deployed 36 times, on missions ranging from a chlorine-spilling train derailment near San Antonio, to the 2002 Olympic Games, to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia (with its release of toxic fuel). Normally based outside of Dallas, the aircraft has been sent to both of this year's political conventions. It is currently standing by at an area airfield near New York City; Thomas asked that the location not be disclosed.

While he obviously hopes there will be no need for ASPECT at the convention, Thomas also hopes that the mission will garner attention -- and funding -- for the next phase of the program: equipping five more aircraft to provide rapid-response coverage for chemical accidents or attacks anywhere in the country.