Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chemical Incident Review 9-30-08

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.


Pittsburg Terminal Corp; Pittsburg, PA


The Pittsburg Terminal Corp recalled all kerosene sold by its dealers between May and August. An unknown amount of the kerosene was apparently contaminated with enough gasoline to result in explosive vapors. No incidents or injuries have been reported from the contaminated fuel. The contamination was apparently caused by a leaking valve.


To date the CFATS regulations only look at preventing contamination issues where the COI will produce toxic vapors when contaminated with water. Looking at this incident, this may be an overly restrictive definition of the contamination issue. In any case, all facilities should have quality control checks in place to prevent inadvertently contaminated products from leaving the facility. I would have thought that a standard QC check for fuels like kerosene would be flash point testing.


Bayer CropScience, Institute, WV


An explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant killed one worker and injuredanother. Three major roads were closed and thousands of local residents were warned to shelter-in-place. The chemicals involved in the explosion were methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), hexane and dimethyl disulfide. The explosion happened at 10:25 pm and local officials were not informed what chemicals were involved in the explosion until 1:00 am. The incident is being investigated by the Chemical Safety Board.


Local residents have been very unhappy with how long it took for Bayer to notify local authorities about the chemicals involved. Everyone around the facility knows that the facility stores methyl isocyanate (MIC, the chemical that killed over 15,000 people in Bhopal, India) and other very toxic chemicals. Not knowing what chemicals were involved made for a very nervous couple of hours for a large number of people.


This is a perfect example of how an emergency response is not supposed to work This facility has a large number of highly toxic chemicals that could easily be expected to affect the off-site population if released. Anytime one of these chemicals is released quick decisions are going to have to be made about potential evacuations and shelter in place requirements. The local government making these decisions needs timely information.


Not only is the local population incensed, but the company is giving the entire industry a black eye. Not only were they slow to respond on the night of the incident, Bayer refused to take part in a public meeting afterward to review the incident. Is it any wonder that much of the public refuses to trust the chemical industry?


Moorehead Water Treatment Plant; Moorehead, MN


Two independent chemical leaks, chlorine and ammonia, caused some confusion at the Moorehead Water Treatment Plant. A chlorine alarm caused the initial emergency response to the facility, but the initial leak discovered was an ammonia leak. The two leaks were in separate parts of the facility and took place when most of the workers were gone for the day. No injuries were reported and neither chemical escaped the confines of the facility.


Three separate news reports all failed to pick up on the catastrophic accident that could have happened if these leaks had been larger or had not been detected promptly. Chlorine and ammonia react to form nitrogen trichloride a very unstable explosive. This is the violent chemical reaction that is found in most household ‘cleaning accidents’ when dilute chlorine bleach and household ammonia cleaners are mixed.


Most process hazard analysis (PHA) programs will allow a facility to discount a hazard that has to rely on two separate system failures to be initiated. The water treatment facility staff probably never analyzed for simultaneous leaks of both chlorine and ammonia.


Security planners, on the other hand should certainly look into the possibility of an attacker deliberately releasing both chemicals into the same building at the same time. The resulting explosion would damage a piece of critical infrastructure and release a TIH chemical at the same time. A perfect two-fer with no equipment required.

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