Article Archive
Buncefield's ghost looms large
Government extends anti-terrorism rules to gasoline storage
Volume 24, No. 2

A new president who promises change has taken office. Democrats now have large majorities in both chambers of Congress and a new era of stricter regulation is almost certainly upon us.

For industry, the opening salvo in that new era is a surprise decision announced by the Department of Homeland Security late last year to extend its industrial anti-terrorism standards to include certain types of fuel terminals handling gasoline. To say that this move is ill advised is an under-statement. It means adding an unnecessary and incredibly expensive layer of security measures to facilities that simply do not represent the threat that DHS imagines.

In 2008, DHS' National Protection and Programs Directorate established national standards for chemical facility security in a comprehensive set of regulations known as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. The intention was to protect high-risk chemical facilities from attack and prevent theft of chemicals that could be used as weapons.

Principal among DHS' concerns are "quantities of toxic, flammable, or explosive chemicals that have the potential to create significant adverse consequences for human life or health if intentionally released or detonated." Of primary concern are products such as propane, chlorine and ammonium nitrate.

Anybody familiar with the chemistry behind refining knows that all gasoline contains a small percentage of propane among other hydrocarbons. In what legal minds refer to as boot strapping, DHS has used this point as an excuse to include a large number of gasoline storage tank facilities on its list of high risk chemical sites.

At the heart of this controversy is a basic lack of understanding about the product involved. Sure, gasoline should be treated with respect -- utmost respect. But gasoline simply does not pose a plausible threat of fueling vapor cloud explosions related to any viable threat of terrorism.

What about Buncefield? On Dec. 11, 2005, what has been described as the worst peacetime explosion in the United Kingdom rocked the Buncefield oil storage depot north of London. The pressure wave from the blast destroyed or damaged many surrounding businesses. The raging fire that followed consumed 17 storage tanks and took three days to extinguish.

Buncefield could happen again, given the right circumstances of time, weather, mechanical failure and human error. However, manufacturing that set of circumstances is certainly beyond what even the most determined terrorists could manage. For more than 40 minutes, nearly 300 tons of gasoline spilled unchecked into a dike surrounding a storage tank. Slowly, a vapor cloud extended out from the tank.

Only then came ignition.

Had terrorist used a missile or explosives at Buncefield, an immediate storage tank fire would have been the worst thing suffered. Such fires are increasingly infrequent but not uncommon. Industrial firefighters have developed the tools and techniques to effectively deal with them. That they were not allowed to use those skills and resources in a timely manner at Buncefield is another matter. But even if terrorists capture a storage tank facility, open the taps and wait a similar period of time, none of that guarantees a vapor cloud explosion comparable to Buncefield.

What could be done to prevent a terrorist attack on a target as exposed as a gasoline storage tank? Short of military countermeasures, the best that facility managers can offer is more guards, barriers and fences. Encasing storage tanks in concrete like nuclear power plants is simply not an option. Besides, making it more expensive to do business in America is not what the economy needs right now, particularly when that expense is unwarranted.

In some cases involving dangerous chemicals, particularly in populated areas, added precautions at storage facilities may well be merited. The would-be regulators might better serve the public by focusing on this concern.

Gasoline storage facilities represent the barest minimum of risk to citizens beyond the plant perimeter except under freakish Buncefield-type conditions. It would be impossible for even the best financed, most organized terrorists to duplicate the bizarre sequence of aberation that visited so much destruction upon the typically quiet English countryside.


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