Pipelines vulnerable to terrorist attacks

October 1, 2001 By    

Airborne fuel caused the Sept. 11 conflagrations that shocked the United States. But while airline safety gets a public upgrade, could the next terrorist strike hit fuel at ground level or underground?

Pipelines may be vulnerable to attack, so the Department of Transportation is trying to work with carriers to protect fuel in transit. Even before the hijackings, the Research & Special Programs Administration was warned that it may inadvertently be providing fuel line data that could fall into the hands of terrorists.

In a June 14 letter to the Office of Pipeline Safety and again in Aug. 13 public comments about OPS’ rules for pipeline integrity management in high consequence areas, the American Gas Association warned that gas companies fear public information about pipeline systems could fall into the wrong hands.

“Some pipelines supply critical services including power plants and military installations, while others have vulnerable spots that can easily be identified if a complete picture is presented,” wrote George Mosinskis, AGA’s managing director.

OPS placed a still-incomplete National Pipeline Mapping System on the Internet, citing a public right to know. Within days of the hijackings, it removed the pipeline maps from the Web site.

OPS and Congress will reconsider what pipeline information becomes easily public. Operators, builders and emergency personnel will still need to know pipeline location and flow, so the data needs to be public.

“We were discussing it in-house,” one OPS official says. “All these lines are already marked. Mapping may give some information to terrorist group or vandals, but markers are already there. I don’t know how we address them.”

The afternoon of the attacks, OPS issued a pipeline security information circular to pipeline operators asking them to take emergency security measures and develop long-term security plans.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, meanwhile, has been quietly reminding hazmat transporters to remain vigilant. Drivers are being cautioned to watch where they park unattended vehicles and to take note of anyone who appears to follow them.

The biggest safety problems for carriers are in loading and unloading rather than transporting, says Cliff Harvison, president of National Tank Truck Carriers, Inc. Since the plane crashes, drivers have experienced considerable delays in the Northeast and crossing the Canadian border, where security has been tightened.

FMCSA issued a statement of Emergency Relief from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Fuel carriers responding to the emergencies needn’t comply with hours-of-service regulations, but they still must follow hazmat regs.

FMCSA has warned that emergency relief does not include transportation related to long-term rehabilitation of damaged physical infrastructure or routine commercial deliveries after the initial threat to life and property has passed.

Carriers needn’t get prior approval to gain exemptions from rules. Those with out-of-service orders must continue to comply with them. FMCSA recommends but does not require that carriers document their activities while responding to or being inconvenienced by emergencies, in case inspectors ask. If you exceed hours-of-service because you were detained at the border or are rushing to supply a military base, for instance, log it.

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