Monday, August 12, 2019

Tannerite and the ANSP

I had an interesting discussion last week with a reader who must remain anonymous (for professional reasons) about the technically still pending Ammonium Nitrate Security Program (ANSP) and explosive targets sold under the brand name Tannerite®. Anon was concerned that the sale of these binary explosives was not covered under the ‘proposed’ ANSP (all but dead) nor in the recently released Sandia Labs report on ammonium nitrate.

Anon is correct that the commercial sale of these targets would probably not be covered by the proposed ANSP. There is a 25-lb minimum on the amount of ammonium nitrate (AN) being sold to require buyer registration under that program. With the largest single packaging currently being sold on the Tannerite web site containing only eight ‘one-pound targets’ (containing presumably substantially less than 1-lb of AN), the company could very reasonably restrict sales enough to keep their customers from having to register).

Anon’s question is why would an ‘explosive target’ not be included in a security program designed to block the use of ammonium nitrate in improvised explosive devices (IED)? The answer to that question addresses the problem that DHS continues to have with their congressional requirement to regulate ammonium nitrate security to prevent its use in IED’s; money. And, unfortunately, we are not talking about the money lobbyists are spending to stop regulations; we are talking about the cost of regulations.

ANSP Costs

DHS estimated that the cost of their proposed Ammonium Nitrate Security Program would range somewhere between $300 million to $1.041 billion over 10 years with the actual expected cost closer to about $670.6 million. The largest variable in that overall cost estimate (and the largest part of the estimated cost) is the cost of the point-of-sale regulations.

Congress requires that potential regulators look at the cost benefit of their proposed regulations, and DHS did so with their ANSP notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). Using the Murrah Building attack (the only large scale AN based terrorist attack in the United States as their prevention standard, DHS calculated a payback period of 14.1 years for the ANSP. Or in plain-speak, if the ANSP prevented a Murrah scale attack every 14.1 years, the program would pay for itself. Since it has already been 24 years since that bombing, and a similar attack has not taken place, and the ANSP has not been in place, it seems like the price of the program is too large. That is, in fact, why DHS has not finalized the ANSP, it is not justified on a cost/benefit basis.

Smaller Scale Attacks

It would take a huge number of explosive targets (or medical cold-packs, another small-scale product that uses ammonium nitrate) to make up a Murrah Building scale bomb. The buyers of that type of quantity would stand out even without the ANSP and some law enforcement agency would be investigating. A huge number of small-scale purchases would not attract attention but would be logistically very difficult to accomplish.

No, binary targets and cold-packs would only be used in small-scale devices like the IEDs used in the September 2016 attacks in New York City. The one device that detonated did not kill anyone, but it did injure 29 people. The ANSP would not have prevented that attack. A federal program that would prevent that scale of IED attack by limiting the purchase of small amounts of ammonium nitrate would be significantly more expensive. It would have to prevent more than one such attack a year to be ‘cost effective’ based upon the $95 million cost per-year estimate for the ANSP program. The higher cost of the expanded program would probably require preventing an attack every couple of months to be effective.

Of course, it should be remembered that for small-scale IED’s ammonium nitrate-based weapons are fairly complicated and requires some small level of expertise to employ. There are a number of lesser skilled options available to the casual IED maker, black-powder or gunpowder pipe bombs being the most common examples in the US. And I will not even discuss the much less dangerous ‘mail-box bombs’.

This is one of the reasons that DHS has reached out to stakeholders about looking at the broader improvised explosive device issue. It is much too early to talk about this effort as being a rulemaking (especially since Congress has not specifically provided authority for an expanded rule making), but folks seem to be looking at establishing some sort of voluntary retail identification check program for some sort of list of chemicals that could be used to make IEDs (almost certainly not including mail-box bombs).

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