Earlier this week there was a chlorine gas release from a 1-ton cylinder that was being processed for recycling at a facility in Spokane, WA. As we expect to see in an event of this sort initial news reports (here, here, here, and here) are somewhat contradictory and more than a little confused. It is clear, however, that a number of people are in local hospitals in serious condition from complications due to chlorine inhalation. No deaths have been reported.
What we appear to know at this point is that a chlorine cylinder was delivered to the facility for recycling. The facility expects the offeror of the cylinder to ensure that it is empty before it is delivered to the facility. There is probably no reasonably safe way to the facility to test this for themselves.
At some point in the recycling process (in a crusher?) the cylinder integrity was compromised and the contents were released to the atmosphere inside a building on site. The resulting gas cloud was not confined to the building and off-site personnel were affected. This argues that there was a substantial amount of chlorine in the cylinder, not just residues.
At this point in the investigative process there has been no information released about who delivered the cylinder to the facility. Since these cylinders are re-useable and fairly expensive, I find it difficult (but certainly not impossible) to believe that the rightful owner of the cylinder (a chemical company or chemical distributor) sent an in-service cylinder to be recycled. These things are very expensive and have a long service life that is used to amortize the initial cost of the cylinder.
Cylinders that no longer meet the PHMSA criteria for use would certainly be recycled after they were emptied and cleaned (these are big heavy metal cylinders and worth a significant amount of money as scrap metal). The determination that they no longer met PHMSA standards would only be done after PHMSA approved testing which has to be done on an empty and cleaned cylinder. This is why it is unlikely to have come from the rightful owner.
This leads me to believe that the cylinder may have been stolen for its scrap metal value by a thief that did not know that the cylinder still had a significant amount of chlorine still inside or didn’t care. In either case it should be fairly easy to track the cylinder back to the facility from which it was stolen. These cylinders are serial numbered and even if the number were removed there should be a VERY small number of these cylinders stolen.
In any case this situation does show that it is reasonably possible for someone to get their hands on a significant amount of chlorine in this country. That combined with the current use of chlorine based improvised munitions in the Middle East by the Islamic State forces raises the specter of similar munitions being used in terror attacks in here at home. This is not a real high threat as it isn’t an attack method that could easily be used by your local internet-recruited IS wannabes, but it could be used by someone trained by the IS in Syria or Iraq.
It will be interesting to see if we ever hear about where this particular cylinder actually came from.