Monday, January 28, 2008

Chemical Incident Review – 1-28-08

With the publication of the final version of Appendix A and the attendant attention on completing Top Screens, I have not written much about chemical incidents in the last couple of months. While there have been no reports of terrorist related chemical incidents there have been a number of chemical accidents that can provide information to people conducting SVAs and developing Site Security Plans. With that in mind I’ll look at some of the chemical incidents in the last couple of months.


T2 Labs Explosion – Jacksonville, FL


On December 19th there was a large explosion at the T2 Labs chemical plant in Jacksonville, FL. Four people were killed, a number were injured (both on and off site) and there was significant building damage at a number of businesses off site. The investigation included four federal agencies, Jacksonville homicide detectives and the state fire marshal.


A CE&N reporter quotes a Chemical Safety Board investigator as saying it was the largest blast that the board has investigated to date. The CSB preliminary report indicates that a runaway chemical reaction in a pressure vessel resulted several thousand pounds of pressure in the vessel. The pressure was too much for the vessel (with 3” thick steel walls) to contain so the vessel ruptured sending a stream of flammable gasses into the air. Those gasses almost immediately ignited in a fuel-air explosion that resulted in the fire on site.


Neither the EPA nor OSHA regulations deal with reactive chemistry like that that was involved in this explosion. The new CFATS regulations, with their strong reliance on EPA and OSHA identification of hazardous chemicals, does notdeal with this type of threat either. Unless one or more of the solvents used in this process was listed in Appendix A, or if the amount Hydrogen produced in the reaction was more than 10,000 lbs, this facility was probably not covered by the CFATS regulation.


Admittedly this is not the type incident that most people consider when they think about a terrorist attack. This type incident could only be brought about by insider collusion or an insider attack. To deliberately bring about this incident someone would have to bypass process controls that keep this reaction within normal parameters. Even if someone were to gain manipulate the process controls from the outside, they would need insider information about the process being run.


That does not mean that terrorists could not pull off this type of attack. There is an increasing realization that terrorist groups are looking to recruit disaffected employees to acquire this type of information or to actually conduct attacks on site. This was an item of interest at the latest National Infrastructure Advisory Council meeting. This is also one of the reasons that the CFATS rules require a personnel surety program as part of the Site Security Plan for covered facilities.


JBS Swift & Company Ammonia Leak – Worthington, MN


On January 15th there was a leak of the anhydrous ammonia coolant in the refrigeration system at the JBS Swift plant in Worthington, MN. Over thirty people were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries related to their chemical exposure. The leak was handled by the plants HAZMAT team. Ambulances from three separate companies transported the most seriously injured and a local bus company was contacted to provide transportation for those with minor injuries. None of those injured required hospitalization.


This incident shows how important it is to have a good plan. The company’s HAZMAT team removed people from the affected area, conducted effective triage on site and got everyone to appropriate medical care. At the same time the leak was identified, isolated and repaired. If this had been a terrorist attack instead of an accident, these same mitigation techniques would have served to reduce the effectiveness of the attack.


Vertellus Specialties Chemical Leak – Water Gap Delaware


On January 12th a storage tank at Vertellus leaked about 17,000 pounds of a mixture of maleic anhydride and octene into a diked area on the facility site. About 30 local residents were evacuated and local fire companies and HAZMAT units responded. A private HAZMAT response company responded and cleaned up the spill. There were no injuries and no fire.


The local response was prompt and included responders coming to the site with foam fire suppression equipment, a requirement for many chemical fires. Multiple localities responded. The national HAZMAT response company was notified at the same time as the local 911 call was made. It looked like a well coordinated response prevented a potentially large fire. Again prior planning with local response agencies is an important incident mitigation tool and would be important in any chemical attack.

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