'Weaponizable' Gas for Your Backyard Barbecue

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

It seems like something from a James Bond film, with code names like Top Screen and "tiered security risk." Yet for the propane gas industry and thousands of other chemical facilities, this is no fiction.

Starting June 8, makers and sellers of the colorless, odorless, flammable gas and other chemicals face a new Department of Homeland Security rule requiring them to complete a secure online survey assessing whether they are a high-risk target for terrorists. If so, they must make security fixes or face $25,000-a-day fines or be put out of business.

The rule is the latest, and one of the most sweeping, of more than 150 the department has issued since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The complaints of propane manufacturers illustrate the delicate balance the department must maintain as it tries to terror-proof the nation without prohibitive expense for the industries. The department figures it may cost companies as much as $3.6 billion over three years to secure the facilities.

The rule will "reduce the safety of propane customers, hurt the environment and needlessly cost American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars on a paperwork exercise that will not improve our country's national security," said Philip Squair, senior vice president of the National Propane Gas Association. The Washington trade group represents 3,500 propane-related businesses.

Some 40,000 facilities across the nation would have to go through the initial screening, according to regulators' estimates. That's based on the 344 "chemicals of interest" listed in the appendix to the 59-page rule published last month.

The propane industry said the government estimate was too low. According to its calculations, about 144,000 propane facilities alone would be affected.

Some trade groups, including the International Dairy Foods Association (concerned about anhydrous ammonia in refrigeration systems) and the American Feed Industry Association (urea used in animal feed that could be used to make explosives), also have told federal regulators they don't present much security risk.

On the other hand, the American Chemistry Council, which speaks for 130 chemical companies including Dow Chemical, said it supports the rule. Members already have spent $3.5 billion to protect their facilities against terrorism, said council spokesman Scott Jensen.

"The interim final rule was a step forward in improving chemical facility security," he said.

Jensen suggested some smaller companies covered by the initial screening may be overreacting, since it's unlikely they will end up in the pool of 300 to 400 facilities the government thinks will have the highest risks. The risk is based on elements that include the nature of the substance and the facility's proximity to large populations.

Though other companies officially say they support the mission of the department, their preference often has been to seek voluntary compliance or stress that existing state and local storage and security requirements are sufficient.

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