Article Archive
Haz Mat - Risks and Resources
Volume 22, No. 6

Hazardous materials, commonly referred to as "hazmats," are a fact of life in our society. Without them, our lives would be decidedly different and most likely far less comfortable. All too often we are so caught up in the "hazardous" factor that we forget the "materials" part.

Hazardous materials by their very nature pose risks - risks to the community and risks to those who work with them. But they are also a resource. Virtually any manufactured item that we routinely utilize in our daily activities has, at sometime in the course of its production, been acted upon or associated with one or more hazardous materials. Many of the products that we have in our homes and use on a daily basis are technically "hazmats," and they can and do pose risks. They are also resources for the things we want and take for granted every day: clean white clothes, fuel for motor vehicles, drain cleaner, and even soft drinks which contain phosphoric acid and must travel to the mixing/bottling plant under a DOT "corrosive" placard.

?Sadly, hazardous materials are sometimes a resource of another sort; they are the raw materials from which the terrorist or other malefactor creates his bombs, his improvised explosive devices (IEDs), his toxic gasses and other biological weapons. In this context hazmats become a risk that we all face, and unfortunately that risk is all too real.

Hazardous materials can generally be lumped into two broad classes: A.) Resident: those that are present on a more or less permanent basis because they are part of the community economy and B.) Transient: those that are transitory in nature and are present only briefly when they pass through the community as part of the cargo carried by the transportation system.

Hazmats in the "A" group pose a significant risk because they are in the community for an extended time period, often indefinitely, as new supplies are acquired to replace stocks sold or consumed in the process of manufacturing finished products. They are also usually present in fairly large quantities. On the other hand, we know that these commodities are present, we have a general idea of how much we have on hand and we know where the bulk of the material is located. This knowledge allows for detailed preplanning for mitigation in the event of an incident.

Group "A" hazmats would, of course, include such things as stock piles of industrial chemicals but they would also include often overlooked items such as the chlorine at the water and waste water facilities of a community, the liquid oxygen system at the local hospital or the ethylene oxide sterilizer at the same location. Then there are the various agricultural chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides stored at the local farm and ranch supply store and the chemicals used in construction at the builder's supply.

?Because of the accessibility of hazmats within our communities, a terrorist or other perpetrator does not have to bring enough material with him to cause a large explosion or fire; all he has to bring is the means to set off the material already available and the knowledge of how to use it. This means that the small lot retailers such as Wal-Mart or Home Depot can supply his needs for enough material to set off the main event. Paint stores are another source for small quantities of hazmats. One can buy a quart of acetone for about six dollars almost anywhere and a quart of acetone will make a substantial quantity of acetone peroxide; more than enough to initiate an explosion or start a fire of major proportions.?

Group "A" hazmats are everywhere; this is a "given," and pre-planning must include protocols for dealing with those that are known to be present in a particular community.

The materials in the "B" group, on the other hand, constitute a constantly changing conglomerate of indefinite and unknown composition. With a few exceptions there is no way for the local public and/or safety officials to know what or how much the next plane, train or truck will carry into their jurisdiction. Therefore they have nothing more than a good guess to go on so far as what should be carried on inventory in the way of materials and equipment to deal with hazmat incidents involving materials in the "B" category. Thankfully the vast majority of these shipments pass through our communities without incident, but there is still the possibility of a mishap, of either accidental or deliberate genesis, which poses a threat to the populace and would therefore necessitate an emergency response, mitigation and cleanup.

?Fortunately, perhaps due mainly to the heightened awareness of possible terrorist activity in the wake of 9/11, shippers are becoming more inclined to assist and cooperate with local authorities by, among other measures, notifying them in advance when shipments of especially hazardous commodities are being transferred. Consignees too are becoming more cooperative in notifying authorities about the arrival of shipments of hazardous materials and taking care to offload these commodities promptly. All these things are of great benefit in pre-planning for emergencies but they only apply to legitimate shipments and storage; those that are illegal or are intended for some clandestine nefarious purpose are, of course, never reported.

Nonetheless, this reporting of movements of hazardous materials is good for those at the ends of the route who are either shipping or receiving the reported commodities and need to schedule loading/offloading activities or arrange for storage, but they do little or nothing for the emergency responders in the small communities along the line. Rarely are these even included in any notification; their first indication of what is on the train comes when they hear the crash and see the clouds of smoke and debris all over the landscape. Then the question "what have we here?" becomes paramount.

To deal with this problem, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) initiated the program of placarding and labeling shipments of hazardous materials in the late 1970's and early 1980's to immediately identify cars or trucks carrying a hazmat. Placards on railcars and motor trucks have been very beneficial to emergency responders since the inception of the program, but there is one drawback.

Any terrorist or perpetrator? with wits enough to obtain a DOT "Yellow Book" (now available to the general public via the internet) will know exactly which car or truck to zero in on as a focal point of any proposed attack. Thus we are placed on the horns of a dilemma: do we identify the vehicles carrying hazmats and in doing so aid terrorists? Do we remove the identifying markings and hamstring the responders?

In the hysteria that occurred in the wake of 9/11, there was actually a proposal put forth at the federal level to remove any and all identifying markings from trucks and rail cars.? Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the benefits accruing from warning emergency response personnel outweighed the gains in security supposedly resulting from the removal of any labels and placards from the shipments.

Terrorists and other perpetrators base their schemes on materials that are available within the environment they intend to operate. Thus the 9/11 attackers did not employ anything that needed to be transported from a remote site or that would have aroused suspicion at the time. The flammable material was already in place in the full fuel tanks of the hijacked airplanes and would ignite upon impact; all the perpetrators had to do was change the course of the various flights to one that would result in a collision with the target. As we know this plan was all too effective.

In the case of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the explosive was basically common fertilizer, which was available in the community. Acetone peroxide, another terrorist's tool, allegedly used by the operatives perpetrating the bombing of the London underground (subway), can be made from cheap finger nail polish remover (acetone) and drugstore variety hydrogen peroxide.

Transportation has always been one of the weaker links in the chain of security.

The technique of secreting a bomb aboard a vehicle or vessel by attaching it surreptitiously in an obscure location or inserting it as part of a shipment or through the fuel supply is a time honored practice. Rail yards and railroads are "lightning rods" for nefarious activity since cars loaded with hazmats (and clearly placarded as such) sit for long periods of time or creep at a walking pace.

The situation with regard to motor trucks is a little better: each truck has a driver, which gives better security than the head end crew of a freight train, but drivers must stop for food, fuel and rest. Each of these stops provides an opportunity for some malefactor to attach or insert some sort of destructive device into a load.

Seaport containers arriving from foreign ports are not subjected to any actual inspection.? A container arrives, and if nothing suspicious is noted, it is offloaded to the dockyard and re-loaded onto a truck or train for delivery to its final destination - usually with no questions asked.

Airline security is somewhat better, especially in the wake of 9/11 and a few subsequent episodes. Passenger carry-on luggage, as well as the passengers themselves, are now universally screened. However, the majority of airfreight is not scanned and neither is much of the stowed luggage, at least on domestic flights.?

The bottom line here is that transportation is arguably the most vulnerable part of the world's industrial distribution system and has been the target or the means of destruction. What this tells us is that incidents stemming from the "B" group exposure are the most likely to be encountered and are certainly the most difficult to predict and pre-plan for since virtually everything about them is an unknown.

Hazmat incidents, accidental or deliberate, happen when they happen, and they are not restricted to urban areas or industrial sites. They happen in small towns and in remote rural areas. Wherever they happen, a prompt response is mandatory. Emergency response groups must be prepared to join together to deal with even the most sophisticated incident. In order to do this effectively, response groups must accomplish several things: They must have complete interoperational compatibility - radio frequencies, hose couplings, air supply fittings, fire plug threads and command structure, to name but a few items. Each and all must dovetail together to create a seamless multi-jurisdictional response organization that will actually function effectively in the field as well as look good on paper. This is by no means an easy thing to achieve, but it is an absolute necessity in today's public safety environment. Next, responders must have the support - not just lip service - of local government or industry, depending upon which side of the table they are on.


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