Increased regulation of chemical plants needed to combat terrorism, says Mannan

December 17, 2007
| By: Aubrey Bloom

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Citing the potential for acts of terrorism on any of the thousands of chemical processing plants throughout the country, M. Sam Mannan, a Texas A&M University chemical engineering professor and authority on process safety and risk management, testified before a House subcommittee Wednesday (Dec. 12) and urged Congress to give the Department of Homeland Security permanent and continuing authority to regulate chemical security in the United States. Mannan's testimony came as part of a congressional hearing on the "Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2008," a proposed amendment to the Homeland Security Act of 2002 that provides for the regulation of certain chemical facilities. Addressing members of the subcommittee, Mannan, who also is director of Texas A&M's Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, said that while many U.S. facilities have voluntarily begun implementing appropriate security measures, he remains concerned that many have not yet adopted such measures. Because of that discrepancy, a regulation that establishes a minimum and level playing field is critical, he said. "The fact is that chemical infrastructure and all components, including the individual sites, supply and delivery systems, were never built with terrorism in mind," Mannan explained. "Research must be conducted to determine how me might have designed and built the chemical plants and the infrastructure had we considered these threats." Estimates by the Department of Homeland Security suggest that nearly 7,000 facilities - about half of all U.S. chemical plants - are considered to be at high risk of a terrorism attack or an accident. Furthermore, reports from the Environmental Protection Agency have identified 111 facilities throughout the country where a worst-case scenario could endanger more than one million people. As vital as regulation of these facilities is, Mannan explained that effective regulation must be science-based and cautioned that the proposed act or any actions resulting from the act should not create unintended consequences, which might increase the opportunities for attacks rather than mitigate them. Providing an example of such an instance, Mannan detailed a hypothetical substitution of hydrogen fluoride with sulfuric acid for refinery alkylation processes. While sulfuric acid is less toxic than hydrogen fluoride, the amount of sulfuric acid needed to do the same amount of processing is 25 times greater than hydrogen fluoride. Because of that, a change to the less-toxic sulfuric acid would require large storage facilities and increased transportation - both of which could result in greater opportunities for terrorists as compared to a well-managed plant utilizing a smaller amount of hydrogen fluoride. Among Mannan's other conclusions is the particularly disturbing assertion that hazardous materials in transit throughout the United States represent a highly visible target with a far greater degree of vulnerability to an act of terrorism than stationary facilities. What's more, this specific category of hazardous materials, Mannan said, is arguably the least prepared to deal with intentionally caused catastrophic scenarios. Mannan also emphasized the inclusion of water processing facilities in the act as "important and necessary." Though not traditionally considered a chemical processing plant, water processing facilities remain an attractive target to terrorists, Mannan noted. "As the 9/11 events have shown, terrorists are more likely to use easily available materials to strike at us," he said. The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, is part of the larger Committee on Homeland Security that was created by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 to provide Congressional oversight over the development of the Department of Homeland Security. A renowned expert in process safety and risk management operations, Mannan is a professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M and is director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center. The center conducts programs and research activities that enhance safety in the chemical process industries.

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