The Challenge Of Securing Chemical Sites

By: IPVM Team, Published on Jan 30, 2014

Terrorism risk for US chemical facilities has driven enhanced security requirements. In this note, we talk to chemical security expert Patrick Coyle about physical security challenges and common implementations at these facilities. 

The prevailing U.S. legislation on securing potentially hazardous chemicals, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standard (CFATS) identifies a list of more than 300 chemicals [link no longer available] that DHS wants to keep protected. Facilities housing these chemicals are required to report to the Department of Homeland Security who does a site assessment and determines if a facility is high or low risk. Facilities are placed into one of four tiers based on that assesment.

“Assignment of tiers is based on an assessment of the potential consequences of a successful attack on assets associated with chemicals of interest,” DHS says. DHS doesn’t tell the criteria for rating sites out of security concerns. Facilities in the three highest-risk tiers must submit vulnerability assessments to DHS, and all must meet certain security requirements. 

Video Surveillance Difficulties

Short Sight Lines, Blocked Views

Coyle says video surveillance for bigger chemical facilities is difficult because of the nature of the equipment: many large and oddly shaped storage tanks and pipes.

“For example, some of the big oil refineries are so crowded with pipes and tanks that you have very short sight distances. It’s difficult to have a surveillance plan set up to cover the stuff you need to watch with a reasonable number of cameras,” he said. For that reason, he says chemical facilities put a lot of emphasis on intrusion detection and perimeter security.

At one site he worked on there was a tank so big that it would take six cameras for complete coverage. At another site with 50 storage tanks and a small security budget (they could only afford five cameras), they put two at the two gates and aimed the other three at the most hazardous tanks.

“That’s just the problem you have with chemical facilities. For these big facilities you’re talking 1,000 cameras. It’s just not practical,” he said.

Some sites may use motion detection or analytics technology, he says, but he has not worked on any that have.

Wireless Doesn’t Work

Because of all the metal pipes and blocked views, wireless does not work very well. All the cameras have to be hardwired which raises the cost tremendously.

Spark Protection

Also for any security equipment installed, there cannot be any possibility of sparking. Equipment must be "Class 1 Div 1." (See our Hazardous Area Surveillance Tutorial.)

"It's engineering shorthand for the type of protection needed in an environment with the presence of flammable vapors. Typical type requirement is that electronics are in sealed boxes maybe with a nitrogen purge," he said.

Perimeter Security

With these limitations in mind, most facilities will spare little expense securing the perimeter, Coyle says. The most common thing facilities use is standard six-foot chain link fences with 18 inch topguard [link no longer available]. There will usually be cameras covering the length of the fencelines entrances/exits.

“If we can stop them from getting inside the threat area then we don’t need as many cameras in the threat area. And that is probably the most reasonable approach to securing these chemical facilities,” he said.

Conflicting Approaches to Keeping Facilities Safe

One of the bigger debates in chemical security is around the concept of IST or Inherently Safe Technology.

Coyle explains:

“A lot of security folks and environmental folks and safety folks say if you don’t have a big tank of chemical sitting there, then you don’t have a security, safety or environmental problem anymore. In theory, every one is absolutely correct. If you don’t have a chemical there you can’t accidentally release them ... Unfortunately, there are a lot of nasty chemicals out there that are really god building blocks for chemicals we rely on as a society. Where it’s possible to substitute safe chemicals, the industry is doing that.”

Coyle says the CFATS program led to the reduction or elimination of chemical inventories at more than 3,000 facilities.

“Some of those facilities made a business decision that these security measures cost too damn much and they can’t stay in business if they have to spend so much on security.”

To learn more about CFATS visit the DHS CFATS information portal or Coyle's site.

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