Monday, April 20, 2009

CFATS Inspector Finds Damaged HF Tank

The reports out of Norphlet, AR might show some confusion about the difference between hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid, but every report agrees that schools were canceled when a DHS inspector detected a crack in a storage tank at an inactive chemical plant. While the tank was not leaking, the 30,000 gal (or hundreds of gallons or 7,800 gal depending on the report) tank posed an ‘imminent threat of release’, and a Union County Judge declared a state of emergency. As of Friday, operations were under way to remove the chemicals from the site.

According to a client alert put out by Hunton and Williams, the DHS inspector was at the chemical facility for a ‘Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) compliance assistance site visit’. Even though the site has not been operational for over a year (and has apparently never been fully operational since its construction in 2007) the site is covered under CFATS. It’s a good thing that the DHS inspector was on-site.

If the tank had leaked it is likely that the chemical fumes would have been injuring and perhaps killing people before anyone knew what was happening. Identifying the source of the problem and identifying the offending chemical would have taken too much time and first responders would have been put in harms way with inadequate information to protect themselves during the initial response.

Inactive Chemical Sites 

The circumstances that resulted in this plant being inactive have not been explained in the press other than to say that the plant was not made fully operational because of ‘financial problems’. It does, however, represent an increasing problem in the chemical industry, inactive facilities. Because of the economic ‘slow down’ many companies have idled production facilities due to lack of sales. In most cases the stated intention is to resume production when the economy recovers.

I don’t know of anyone that is keeping track of how many of these facilities still have significant amounts of hazardous chemicals on hand. I would suspect that what ever inventory was on-hand when they were idled still remains at most facilities. If the facility has a DHS chemical of interest (COI) on hand in excess of the screening threshold quantity (STQ), the facility would still be potentially covered by the CFATS regulations whether or not the plant was actively manufacturing. 

From the news reports it is not clear if the inspector’s compliance assistance site visit was at the request of the facility or part of an outreach effort to look for non-reporting facilities. For this plant it looks like that point is no longer important, the COI are being removed. This incident does raise the question of how many idled facilities still need to be regulated by CFATS. I’m sure that there are facilities on the current high-risk facility list that are not currently in production.

When DHS starts sending out SVA result letters, it is still going to expect those facilities to complete their Site Security Plan submissions if there are still regulated quantities of COI on site. If those chemicals have been removed, DHS will continue to consider the facilities high-risk facilities until new Top Screens have been submitted showing that there are no longer STQ amounts of COI on site. Only after receiving such Top Screens can DHS remove the facilities from the high-risk list.

Employees as Security 

If facilities continue to maintain inventories of COI above the listed STQ, they are going to have to develop appropriate security procedures to protect those chemicals. The fact that the facilities are not currently operational will probably make those Site Security Plans more complicated. An active workforce present on site is actually part of the security arrangements of most facilities, even though most security planners fail to list it. The extra sets of eyes moving about the facility make it easier to detect intruders. Operators and maintenance personnel are more likely to detect tampering and offensive devices than even the best security forces because they are more familiar with the equipment. On site emergency response is drawn from the same workforce. Lack of that workforce significantly reduces the mitigation capability of the facility.

Government Reaction

I am sure that DHS is going to respond to this incident. I would not be surprised to hear that inspectors are showing up at idled facilities that are on the current high-risk list within the next couple of weeks. They will not be looking for cracked tanks; that is not their job (though obviously if they see deteriorating COI equipment they will report it). They will be looking to see if there is adequate security. And no, padlocked gates and a roving guard armed with a clip board and a flashlight will not be considered adequate.

Hopefully, EPA and OSHA inspectors will be making similar visits to the same facilities. They are the ones that should be looking at equipment, chemical storage and safety training for the on-site maintenance team that is usually left in such circumstances. Those are the two organizations that were caught flat footed by the Norphlet, AR situation. DHS was on the job.

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