MARTIN J. KIDSTON Independent Record SWEETGRASS
A simulated attempt to smuggle a dirty bomb into the United States using the railroad drew a massive cross-border response here, testing the ability of state, federal and provincial agencies to react to an act of terrorism. Six months in the planning and at a cost of $20,000, Thursday, Sept. 18th’s exercise involved eight Canadian agencies, seven federal agencies, seven state agencies and the Montana National Guard. "The more you practice the better you get at what you do," said Monique Lay, an emergency management specialist with Montana Disaster and Emergency Services. "It's important that as we get more resources and more training that we do exercises like this, so we know how to use the resources if an actual event occurs." A recent report by the Government Accountability Office described the northern border as the longest open border in the world. It noted the border's importance to international trade and detailed how 90 percent of Canada's population lives within 100 miles of the international boundary. At the same time, however, the March report warned against the border's porous nature. Investigators found that the northern border offers "a multitude of opportunities for clandestine and undocumented crossings" by terrorists into the U.S. Thursday's exercise took the report into account, simulating an attempted crossing by a group of terrorists planning to execute attacks on targets in the southern U.S. Dubbed "Operation Sweetgrass," the exercise began shortly after 8 a.m. with the simulated burst of a chlorine bomb on a railroad car held up at the Sweetgrass Port of Entry. Within the hour, more than 300 personnel from 23 agencies had responded, including members of the Alberta provincial government. "We get to learn from you folks down here by having our folks participate in this drill as much as we can," said Tim Chander, senior public affairs officer f o r t h e Al b e r t a Eme r g e n c y Management Agency. "Hopefully, if something real like this happened on our side, we'd be better prepared for it." Several local law enforcement agencies from the Sweetgrass area also participated in the exercise, along with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and the Rocky Mountain Integrated Border Enforcement Team. Members of the Montana National Guard's 83rd Civil Support Team donned chemical suits and approached the site of the explosion. They worked under the late summer sun, the inside of their chemical suits dripping with condensation. The specially equipped team, used for the first time in a cross-border exercise, has the ability to respond quickly to nuclear, biological and chemical events across the state. If the infrastructure is destroyed, the unit can establish communication. It also carries the ability to test for unknown contaminants, helping authorities provide the proper response, such as Thursday's simulated evacuation of Coutts, just north of the border in Alberta. "Our purpose is primarily to respond to incidents of domestic terrorism or a weapons-of-mass-destruction-type event," said Maj. Mark McGinley. "We're not a high terrorist target in Montana, but we do have to train in the event something does happen." The exercise took place within view of the Sweetgrass Port of Entry, the largest in Montana. Below the port, responders established a massive command post, where federal and state responders worked to improve the sharing of information. Larry Overcast, director of the Sweetgrass Port of Entry, said the exercise helped authorities learn to deploy the resources provided by various agencies. The drill tested pre-conceived plans, helping officials make improvements for future events. "We have to work concurrently with our friends in Canada to keep the border secure," Overcast said. "The exercise today is a good example of the two countries working together. It's a test on how these agencies can work together in a moment of crisis." Ma r k Mu r p hy, r e p r e s e n t i n g Emergency Management of Alberta, said the Alberta Solicitor General had been working with Montana officials on aspects of intelligence and terrorism leading into Thursday's drill. "The government of Alberta has established the Government Emergency Operations Center in Edmonton," Murphy said. "Every department of the provincial government has staff in that operations center and is assisting to solve the situation on the ground. There's a lot of coordination of resources going on at the highest levels of provincial government in Alberta."