Monday, March 3, 2008

Chemical Incident Review – 3-03-08

Once again, since there have been no reported terrorist incidents at chemical facilities reported in the press, we will look at chemical accidents and incidents that have been reported. This is not being done to review safety, but rather to look at such incidents to see what they can teach us about security and mitigation.


Reactive Chemistry


There was a warehouse fire in Columbus, OH apparently caused by a leaking roof. Water fell on some bags of calcium barium silicide. A chemical reaction between this material and water produces hydrogen gas. As a result some of the bags burst into flames. No injuries were reported.


A fire in a pipe factory in Utah County, Utah was caused when some calcium carbide was spilled into some water on site. The chemical reaction led to an explosion that injured 11 people.


Neither of these chemicals is listed in Appendix A to 6 CFR part 27. There is a small category for reactive chemicals; Sabotage/Contamination. According to Final Rule Appendix A “Sabotage/contamination chemicals currently include those chemicals that are capable of releasing a poisonous gas when exposed to water.” Neither of these chemicals meets that definition.


Chemicals like these could easily be used to make incendiary or explosive devices. As such DHS should consider including these types of chemicals in their Theft/Diversion EXP/IEDP. As I noted in an earlier blog (see: “Top Screen Questions: Theft/Diversion Chemicals of Interest”) has not been interested in how much of a Theft/Diversion chemical a chemical facility has on site; the Top Screen just asks them to report if they have it on site. Since I believe that this means that they will not consider facilities to be high-risk facilities due to possession of these Theft/Diversion chemicals, I think it would be prudent to expand the list to include this type of reactive chemicals.




A minor chlorine leak was detected at a Bismarck, ND water treatment plant. The chlorine detector in the room where the chlorine tank was located detected the small amount of chlorine gas and responders were able to fix the leak with no injuries or evacuations needed. Air filters cleaned the gas from the atmosphere in the room.


We are seeing more stories of this sort where chlorine gas leaks are being detected early and responded to without endangering facility employees or the public. A special point in this story is the apparently the chlorine tank was in a sealed room with an air filtration unit capable of dealing with the gas. This would be part of the layered defenses that should protect any inhalation-hazard gas.


A story out of New York City is much more disturbing even though no one was put at risk. The New Your City police department ran an undercover operation to determine how hard it would be for someone to purchase chlorine gas. A chlorine gas supplier was contacted on the internet using a phony company front. Three 100-pound chlorine cylinders were purchased using a credit card and delivered to a rented warehouse.


While the Police Commissioner was very upset at how easy it was to obtain this potential terrorist weapon, anyone with experience in the chemical industry knowsthat this type purchase is not unusual. While many companies, usually the larger companies, do take more care with vetting their customers, distributors areless likely to do so. Larger purchases would more likely come under some review process, but smaller purchases are much more a cash and carry business as long as it is accompanied by a reasonable story.


According to the article the NYPD wants to see federal rules requiring some sort of customer verification for sales of chlorine. DHS is in the process of setting up this sort of program for the sale of ammonium nitrate. The omnibus-spending bill passed in December mandated this program (see: “DHS and the Omnibus Spending Bill”).  DHS might want to consider expanding the program to other chemicals once they get the bugs worked out.




A house in Mottville TWP, MI was completely destroyed by a propane explosion from a leaky 20-lb propane tank. The homeowner had burns over 70% of his body. A car was destroyed outside Grand Forks Air Force Base, ND by a propane explosion. The 20-lb propane tank was being transported inside of the vehicle. No injuries were reported.


Propane leaked into a confined space such as a car or building can be easily detonated as a very effective IED. If the house had been an empty store in a crowded mall or the car had been in a parking lot either one of these could have been a successful terrorist attack. If a larger tank were allowed to leak into a chemical warehouse over a weekend and then detonated at rush hour, the result could be an attack that any terrorist could be proud of.


No reasonable person would try to strictly regulate 20-lb propane tanks (there arejust too many gas grills). Stories like these, however, really bring into question the decision by DHS to cave to the political pressure from the agricultural and propane industries to set the STQ for propane at 60,000-lbs and to exempt 10,000-lb tanks from the STQ calculations. Not all propane tanks are a terrorist risk, to be sure, but a 10,000-pound tank at a shopping mall, a school, or a chemical plant should certainly be considered a high-risk target.

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