Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Possible Explosives in Rail Tank Car

A very scary posting on the Los Angeles Fire Department Blog yesterday. It describes a major operation of the LAFD (68 Firefighters/HAZMAT personnel). It seems that someone discovered a number (78?) packages inside of a rail car. Most of them may have been packages of marijuana, but at least one was suspicious enough to cause the LAPD bomb squad to detonate the coffee can sized package. While this appears to be a drug smuggling case (perhaps from Mexico, no specific word in the LAFD Blog), this is the type of incident that really worries chemical security people. While it is very easy to search the outsides of railcars entering chemical facilities (or hazmat rail cars during any railroad transfer operation), searching the inside of a full railcar is a near impossibility. Even checking inside an inbound empty railcar is problematic. Five pounds of explosives (a coffee can sized container) in a sealed tank car of just about any liquid is going to turn that car into a good size bomb. It wouldn’t truly be an explosive bomb; just a sudden increase in pressure (from the relatively small blast) and the vaporization of a quantity of the nearby liquid will cause a catastrophic failure of the rail car. If the car contains a flammable liquid (or even a combustible liquid) the rupture of the car or flow of the liquid is sure to provide enough of a static electric source to ignite the liquid and form a huge fireball. The only real prevention is to be sure of who is shipping to you so that they take appropriate precautions before the railcar is loaded, closed and sealed. Then a facility needs to check the seals on the car before allowing it on the property. Of course railroads aren’t really happy with the delays that such procedures can cause. This story also points out how important that it is to conduct a good check of the interior of rail tank cars (and tank trucks, and ISO Containers, and….) prior to loading them. I know from personal experience that a 100% visual inspection of the interior of these tanks is a major pain, especially if the tank is in dedicated service (and thus not cleaned between loadings). This seems to me to be a very good place to use a dedicated video system.

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