Volume 85 Issue 34 | p. 49
Issue Date: August 20, 2007

Terrorism And The Chemical Industry

The national debate on chemical plant security raises false alarms
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security, Safety
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Credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories
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Credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories

EVEN BEFORE the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the chemical industry was prominent in discussions about safety and security. Although the discussion then focused mostly on human health and safety from accidental releases of chemicals, by the late 1990s, the rising threat of terrorism was an issue as well.

Since 9/11, an intense national debate has arisen over terrorist threats to chemical plant security. As a result, chemical facilities are subject to both congressional hearings and attacks by environmental groups, and they have become the basis of news media profiles. Most of the attention has been on the scenario that terrorists somehow manage to blow up the storage tanks of extremely hazardous chemicals at a plant, which spreads gas throughout nearby communities, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries.

This is mostly a scare tactic with little basis in reality. Large chemical facilities are certainly dangerous and the industry can improve the security of these assets, but there is little chance that the scenarios being thrown about could actually happen.

The most commonly heard argument is that there are 123 chemical plants in the U.S., where a terrorist attack could kill or injure more than a million people. This number comes from data prepared in 1999, when the Environmental Protection Agency required any company that used or manufactured certain chemicals to do a Risk Management Plan.

Part of the RMP was a worst-case-scenario evaluation for each of the listed chemicals. This exercise required companies to imagine what essentially is impossible. They had to assume all of a listed chemical in the facility is released at once and under the worst weather conditions, that all the facility's safety and mitigation measures would fail, and that no one in the surrounding communities would be evacuated.

These implausible accident conditions now constitute the basis for predictions of what might result from a terrorist attack, a situation not meant to be part of these plans.

While it is possible for an attack on a chemical facility to result in many deaths and injuries, the chance of this happening is minuscule. A detailed analysis of chemical plant vulnerability by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) dated August 2006 states: "The estimated risk of death and injury from such attacks is low relative to the likelihood of other hazardous events, such as industrial accidents or terrorist attacks on other targets using conventional weapons. For any individual chemical plant, the risk of attack is extremely small."

In considering how many resources to devote to the protection of chemical plants from terrorists, the CRS report concludes: "The risks of chemical terrorism in the U.S. would deserve relatively few resources, because they are hypothetical and very small. This is especially true for individual chemical facilities."

So why is so much time and energy being spent on a scenario that is unlikely to ever happen? Well, the numbers in the RMPs are very large and quite scary. And there are some environmental organizations and citizen activist groups working hard to make sure that the news media hear those numbers loud and often. If you add in a few members of Congress who have made the chemical industry the target of legislation over the years, you have set the stage for a hyped-up problem.

That said, a much more serious problem the industry faces than potential terrorism is the risk of theft or diversion of hazardous and explosive chemicals. At a recent forum convened for the industry by the Department of Homeland Security, the problem of chemical theft and diversion was more prominent than the possibility of a huge chemical release.

Just as there is little evidence of anyone trying to blow up a chemical plant, the possibility of a tragic chemical release from an act of criminal sabotage may have an extreme, real-life example.

In December 1984, a runaway reaction in a storage tank vaporized 25 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC), and a deadly cloud of gas spread over the city of Bhopal, India. No one is sure how many died from this tragedy, but estimates go as high as 10,000 people. The facility was owned by Union Carbide, and the investigation by Indian authorities places all the blame on poor management and maintenance by the company.

But according to the company, there is evidence of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. An investigation soon after the event for Union Carbide by the consulting company Arthur D. Little Inc. concluded that an employee had removed a pressure valve over the MIC storage tank, attached a hose to the opening, and ran more than 2,000 lb of water into the tank, causing the MIC to vaporize. The investigation claimed that Indian plant managers and Indian government officials concocted a cover story to tell investigators as a way to deflect suspicion from the true cause.

Although this argument never gained traction, it makes a point. When extremely dangerous chemicals are stored in large quantities, the risk will always be higher than if they are not. The current demand for "inherently safer technology"—the substitution of dangerous chemicals by more benign materials—really has been around since the 1980s. If it could be done affordably, it probably already has.

The most effective way for companies to prevent a disaster is through internal controls and maintenance and by being constantly watchful. Chemical releases are a terrifying possibility, but assault on a chemical plant by terrorists is pretty far-fetched. Chemical security and safety shouldn't be hijacked by bureaucrats and activists generating unwarranted fears about chemicals.

 

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 
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