Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chemical Incident Review – 6-17-08

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. It has been a busy couple of weeks according to news reports, so we have lots to choose from. Remember, 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.

Railroad Derailment: Lafayette, LA

More than 3000 people were evacuated when 2 of six hydrochloric acid rail cars begin leaking after a train derailment. Police officers had to go door-to-door in the evacuation zone to notify people to leave the area.

One problem that cannot be overlooked in a chemical evacuation is the protection of people making the notification and the civilians actually evacuating. The closer these personnel are to the release, the more important it is that they be able to determine their exposure to the chemicals involved. When PIH chemicals are involved personal chemical detectors are a must for emergency personnel conducting evacuation notifications.

While it is easier to plan for a release at a fixed chemical facility, transportation related chemical releases can happen anywhere. This means that simple broad-spectrum chemical-detection equipment is a must for all emergency response personnel.

Water System; Las Lomas, CA

Vandals caused a serious disruption of local water service when mercury was discovered in water samples. Water samples were taken after it was discovered that an access hatch to a water storage tank was found forced open. No mercury was detected in any of the water sources feeding the tank, so it appears that vandals contaminated the tank. Subsequent testing of additional water samples only showed mercury at detectable levels in 1 of 10 samples.

None of the press reports mention the levels of contamination, but it is unlikely that the levels would be immediately toxic. This has always been one of the positive aspects of preventing terrorist attacks on water works; it is very hard to get enough chemicals into the system to cause serious harm to people in the short term. Early detection of contamination is the key.

It must be noted that if the vandals in this case had been politically motivated this would have been a successful terrorist attack. While it appears that no one has been hurt, the water service to the community was disrupted. Doubt was also raised in the local population about the safety of their water supply.

Water Systems; Galt, CA and Wichita Falls, TX

Two water systems recently had chlorine leaks. The leak at the Jasper Water Treatment Plant in Wichita Falls was detected by safety equipment. Emergency scrubbing equipment went into operation and no chlorine escaped the room where the tank was stored. A similar incident happened at the wastewater treatment plant in Galt, CA.

Most water treatment facilities that use portable chlorine tanks can house those cylinders in separate rooms. This will allow for the isolation of a leak, and scrubbers to remove the chlorine from the atmosphere. This will increase the security of the tanks as well as the safety.

Larger chlorine storage tanks can also be housed in buildings to limit the threat of leaks or terrorist attack, but it will require significantly more capital. There is no technical reason that chlorine railcars could not also be parked in such a building.

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