Friday, November 13, 2009

Reader Comment – 11-12-09 Gasoline

I received a brief and favorable comment on a blog from last week about gasoline vapor cloud explosions. Prasad wrote: “Hi, thanks for giving valuable information about gasoline.” While I already have an enlarged ego, I always enjoy feeding on praise. And, in an attempt to garner more praise, I’ll talk a little bit more about the hazards of gasoline. PR Fuel Depot Fire First a brief update on the fire in Puerto Rico. According to the last news report that I have seen, the FBI announced that the source of the fire was a fuel leak during the filling of a gasoline storage tank. The resulting vapor cloud expanded until it ‘found’ an ignition source. The resulting explosion damaged other tanks and spread the fire. The investigation continues, looking for the reason for the leak and the identity of the ignition source. While a number of other fuel tanks became involved in the fire there have been no reports of additional explosions. This appears to be relatively typical for fuel tank farm fires; no large explosions once a tank fire has actually started. The reason for this is simple, gasoline is easily ignitable and the flame front spreads quickly across the full surface area of the exposed liquid. This means that additional vapor clouds do not typically form once the conflagration has begun; no vapor clouds, no vapor cloud explosions (VCE). This is one of the reasons that the fuel distribution industry has argued against DHS calling fuel distribution facilities high-risk chemical facilities. They note that once a fire gets started, the damage is typically isolated to the facility property, making the fuel distribution centers poor terrorist targets. Fuel Depots as Terrorist Targets Actually, there are a couple of reasons that fuel depots make good targets for terrorists. First, for jihadists in particular, the fuel industry is practically synonymous with the American operations in the Middle East. Many Muslim fundamentalists feel that if it were not for oil, that American Imperialists would have no interest in what goes on in the that area of the world. This means that oil company facilities are symbolic targets. This is one of the reasons that al Qaeda has called for attacks on oil company facilities. Next, fires at fuel storage facilities are high profile events. They provide long term impressive video feeds for news organizations so they quickly make national and international news. Such attacks are visible for long distances so they have a major psychological affect on the surrounding community. If these affects were combined with a terrorist claim of responsibility for the attack, it would become a very major attack even if there were minimal off-site consequences. There is an additional economic affect that cannot be ignored. While it would be less obvious in the current economic situation, the loss of a major fuel terminal, particularly if the underlying pipeline were significantly damaged, would have a tremendous affect on the fuel supply in that service area. The ensuing shortage of gasoline would have tremendous local economic consequences and would certainly result in increased fuel prices in entire region and perhaps the country. Finally, a ‘properly’ executed attack could have huge off-site consequences. An attack that caused a catastrophic failure of a large gasoline storage tank would produce a huge vapor cloud. A subsequent ignition event, properly timed and executed, would produce an immense vapor cloud explosion that would be felt over an extensive off-site area. If the terminal were located in a large suburban area, like too many are, the potential death and destruction would rival the twin towers attack. CFATS Coverage These factors all weighed into the decision of DHS to include fuel storage questions in the Top Screen even though gasoline and the other listed fuels are not in the COI list in Appendix A. It would seem obvious, to me at least, that this was a legitimate exercise of the Secretary’s discretion under §550 to designate what facilities “present high levels of security risk”. The fuel distribution industry took objection to that decision. When a number of fuel terminals were notified after their Top Screen submission that they were preliminarily identified as ‘high-risk’ facilities an industry association took legal action to stop DHS from making that determination final. As I understand the situation, DHS is currently unofficially suspending final evaluations of fuel terminal SVAs pending final evaluation of the situation. The two recent incidents at fuel terminals should provide adequate proof that the potential for gasoline vapor cloud explosions is real enough for these facilities to be regulated under the CFATS regulations. Hopefully the Secretary will not require an actual terrorist attack on such a facility to realize that they are potential targets.

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