Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anhydrous Ammonia Incident

On Monday night in the small town of Bargersville, IN someone opened a valve on an anhydrous ammonia tank at Roy Umbarger & Sons Inc., a local farm supply store, allowing the ammonia to drain out on the ground. The county hazmat team knocked down the vapor cloud with a water mist. Two people, a nearby resident and a paramedic were taken to nearby hospitals with breathing problems. Nearby residents evacuated for about an hour, though no evacuation was ordered. A subsequent investigation found an open valve on another tank two blocks away.

Vandalism or Terrorist Attack?

With anhydrous ammonia leaks in rural areas like this, the immediate suspect is a local methamphetamine producer looking for raw materials. According to a local newspaper report the local police felt that "the fact that the valves were totally opened and there appeared to be no effort to capture the chemical leads them to believe it was a simple act of vandalism". One wonders what kind of vandal opens valves on two anhydrous ammonia tanks.

Anhydrous ammonia is toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) chemical that is toxic and corrosive. The liquid would have caused chemical burns to any exposed skin that it came in contact with. As soon as the liquid ammonia started flowing out of the opened valve it started to vaporize. The ammonia fumes would have burned the eyes, nose, throat and lungs of any unprotected person in the immediate area. A common canister protective mask would provide protection for only minutes.

For the conspiracy theorists in the audience, the owner of Roy Umbarger & Sons is R. Martin Umbarger, Major General, Adjutant General of the Indiana National Guard. This means that there could easily be a political connection to this ‘vandalism’.

What is the difference between vandalism and terror attack? I can immediately think of two general differences, scope and motivation. A terror attack is generally larger in scope than vandalism and is politically motivated rather than personally motivated. Unfortunately, neither of those scales is absolute; they blend together in the fuzzy middle.

So where does this fall? Probably on the side of vandalism, but it deserves a close look none the less.

Security Considerations

Needless to say, the security implications for this incident are enormous. At the very least those valves should have been locked closed. The tanks should have been within a protected perimeter (a locked, chain-link fence topped with barbed wire at a minimum). Presumably there was no guard on site, so there should have been video surveillance. Well, that is my opinion any way; remember there are no specific security rules required in CFATS.

Obviously, there is no way of knowing if this facility has been designated a high-risk facility, or even if the owner has completed a Top Screen. Since this is a farm supply facility I am assuming that the tank would hold between a truckload and a rail car load (it is adjacent to a rail line) of anhydrous ammonia. This would certainly be enough to have required CSAT Registration and Top Screen Submission.

So what happens if the authorities do decide that it may have been a terror attack? Does the President come to Bargersville and publicly denounce this cowardly attack, or does the investigation proceed as quietly as possible to try to round up the culprits? That is an interesting political question and one that I am glad that I do not have to make.

One thing that I am sure would happen is that other facilities in similar circumstances (small-town farm-supply companies selling anhydrous ammonia from bulk tanks) would be notified of the potential threat and warned to take extra precautions. And now we have a way to do that quickly (and quietly if so desired); DHS has the email address of at least one individual at each such facility. It should be just a quick sort of a database and the email can go directly to the desired facilities. Another advantage of the CSAT and Top Screen systems.

The Way Forward

I do hope that the authorities at all levels are looking at this particular incident and not just blindly writing it off as a case of vandalism. This incident smells worse (no real pun intended) than the chlorine cylinder incident last year in Texas (see: "Chlorine cylinder still missing"). It certainly doesn’t sound like Al Qaeda or wanna be jihadists as there has been no claim of responsibility. But it also does not sound like your typical case of rural vandalism. There is a lot of area between those two possibilities.

No comments:

/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */