Monday, August 25, 2008

Chemical Incident Review 8-25-08

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.


Illegal Methamphetamine Lab; Jonesburg, MO


The Warren County Sheriff’s Department found six propane-cylinders filled with anhydrous ammonia during the search of a ‘suspected’ methamphetamine lab. Five of the tanks were found buried in the ground. Unwilling to transport the pressurized cylinders of a corrosive chemical, the authorities punctured the cylinders and let the gas disperse on site.


This is just another in a series of incidents that point out the theft/diversion hazards associated with anhydrous ammonia. As I pointed out in an earlier blog (see: “Anhydrous Ammonia Drill”) DHS does not list anhydrous ammonia as a theft/diversion COI. Facilities with anhydrous ammonia still need to take precautions to prevent theft and diversion.


Sunrise Propane Industrial Gasses; Toronto, Ontario


A series of explosions at a propane distribution facility destroyed that facility, heavily damaged five nearby houses and blew out windows a ‘fair distance from the scene’. One facility employee was missing and a number of nearby residents were injured by the blast and flying debris. A number of law suits have already been initiated because the facility was sited in a residential neighborhood.


It will be a while before the cause of the initial explosion is determined. With the incident taking place early Sunday morning it is unlikely that it was caused by a legitimate transfer operation, but an attempted theft of propane has not yet been ruled out. Security procedures that are designed to protect against a terrorist attack could be expected to be effective against theft and vandalism.


CSX Train Derailment; Hendersonville, TN


A train derailment where 17 CSX railcars left the tracks presented a different sort of Hazmat situation. None of the derailed cars contained chemicals; they were carrying cars, trucks and SUVs. The Hazmat situation arose when one of the derailed cars hit a storage shed owned by the White House Utility district. The shed was used for storing chemicals.


Many chemical facilities are built adjacent to rail lines. A derailment could send railcars crashing into storage tanks, warehouses, or processing facilities at many of these facilities. A railcar crashing into a PIH storage tank would result in just as catastrophic a release as a VBIED. And it may be easier to cause a significant derailment than to get a VBIED close enough to a ‘protected’ PIH tank.


High-risk chemical facilities with adjacent rail lines needs to look at their possible vulnerability to secondary releases due to a passing train derailing near their facility. It would be hard to armor a storage tank to withstand a rail car collision. The only real defense would be to move the tanks far enough away from the rail line.


Shell Hydrogen Refueling Station; White Plains, NY


The White Plains, NY fire department had to deal with a hazmat incident that could be come all too common in the future if hydrogen powered vehicle advocates have their way. A compressor at a Hydrogen Refueling Station (currently the only one in the NYC area) caught fire. The fire was put out before the hydrogen ‘tank’ was involved.


This facility only has a 79 lb (36 kg) hydrogen storage tank. The hydrogen is made to demand by hydrolysis of water. The demand is so low (6 to 8 customers) right now that this tank size is adequate. As fuel cell or hydrogen combustion vehicles become more common the tank size will increase to meet the demand.


When the hydrogen storage tanks reach 10,000-lbs in size, these ‘gas stations’ will have to submit Top-Screens because hydrogen is a flammable release COI. It will be interesting to see how their site security plans deal with the open access necessary for customer service. The current ‘exemption’ for gasoline stations could not be justified for hydrogen because even a small breach of containment on a pressurized storage tank would result in a large fuel-air cloud that could be devastating if ignited.

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