Protecting Chemical Plants from Catastrophic Failures, Part 1

Chemical plant security expert William Wayman offers information on security standards and legislation, and an analysis of industry practices


Much has been written about the safety and security of our nation's chemical plants - and for good reason.

The consequences of a catastrophic failure at a chemical plant's process area or storage tank can cause extensive injuries, environmental damage, and even fatalities, both on site and in the surrounding communities. And since many chemical plants are located near large population centers, an event could potentially affect millions of citizens.

Theft of certain chemicals also is a major issue. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the FBI compiled a list of more than 90 commonly used chemicals found at manufacturing facilities that are considered to be "chemicals of concern." This list includes chemicals that can be used as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), such as chlorine, ammonia and phosgene, and chemicals that, in combination with others, can be used to manufacture WMDs.

The ACC's and FBI's findings came as no surprise to executives in the industry: they have known for decades the threats these chemicals pose. The tragic events of 9/11, however, vividly illustrated that the unthinkable could happen in the United States.

Given all of these factors - the close proximity of chemical plants to population centers, the potentially disastrous consequences of an event, The ACC's and FBI's findings, and the ongoing threat of terrorism - industry executives have been actively looking for better ways to ensure plant safety.

Additionally, considering that the chemical industry generates $450 billion dollars a year in revenue, accounts for $80 billion in U.S. exports, and employs more than one million Americans, it is essential that this critical sector of the economy is protected appropriately. It also is just good business sense for the chemical industry to safeguard the environment and surrounding communities.

Achieving enhanced plant protection first requires a basic understanding of past practices and legislation. Here is a quick look at pre-9/11 initiatives.

In 1971, the American Chemistry Council launched the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center (Chemtrec) - a 24/7 emergency communication center for chemical transportation incidents that provides emergency responders technical assistance from product safety specialists, toxicologists, and other industry experts. Another noteworthy initiative was the Responsible Care Code - a formalized set of management practices intended to improve safety; provide critical information to local communities in the event of a failure; and protect employees, communities and the environment.

So what is the chemical industry now doing to protect the citizens, the environment, and the economy from a potential terrorist attack? And what regulations has U.S. government passed to enhance security?

What follows is a brief overview of important initiatives implemented since 9/11.

In October 2001, the ACC, the Chlorine Institute, Inc., and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA) jointly published Site Security Guidelines for the US Chemical Industry. In April 2002, the ACC established the Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC), utilizing its Chemtrec communications center for direct communications between the chemical industry and the Department of Homeland Security.

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