The chemical manufacturing infrastructure in the U.S. is critical to our nation’s economic health. Not only are we dependent on it, it is extensive, and it is often located near residential areas. Unfortunately, it can also pose danger to our communities, and it is generally poorly protected.

It is estimated that some 15,000 industrial facilities that use and store large quantities of hazardous chemicals could potentially provide terrorists with readily accessible materials for developing improvised explosives, incendiaries and poisons. Yet many public and corporate emergency responders are unaware of the magnitude of this threat.

The liquids and gases used in U.S. manufacturing flow through some 2.1 million miles of pipelines every day. And over a million loads of hazardous materials are transported around the country across more than 200,000 miles of track, highways and inland waterways.

Accessible and unprotected

While improvised industrial chemical agents may be less toxic than military agents, many can be highly dangerous, having rapid, highly visible impacts on health. They are accessible and unprotected. They can be dispersed by smoke, gas clouds, or food and medicine distribution networks. And they are found in a wide variety of manufacturing settings including chemical manufacturing plants, food processing and storage facilities with large ammonia tanks, gasoline and jet fuel storage tanks, pesticide distributors, as well as educational, medical and research labs, to name a few.

The chemicals involved include a wide range of toxic agents:

  • eye, skin and respiratory irritants (acids, ammonia, acrylates, aldehydes and isocyanates);
  • choking agents (chlorine, hydrogen sulfide and phosgene);
  • flammable chemical industry gases (acetone, alkenes, alkyl halides, amines);
  • aromatic hydrocarbons that could be used as water supply contaminants (benzene, etc.);
  • oxidizers for improvised explosives (oxygen, butadiene and peroxides);
  • aniline, nitrile and cyanide compounds that could be used as chemical asphyxiants;
  • compressed hydrocarbon fuel gases that could be used as incendiaries or simple asphyxiants (liquefied natural gas, propane, isobutane);
  • liquid hydrocarbon fuels that could be used as incendiaries or water supply contaminants;
  • industrial compounds that could be used as blister agents (dimethyl sulfate);
  • organophosphate pesticides that could be used as low-grade nerve agents.

The scope and nature of the chemical threat requires a thoughtful and focused response. One critical factor is the monitoring and protection of chemical manufacturing sites and the transportation networks that carry the chemicals to their end-use points.

Security gaps

A report from the National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training found that most security gaps at chemical plants were the result of complacency and lack of awareness of the community threat. In addition to threats from poor processes and worker screening failures, the report noted that security around chemical transportation assets ranged from poor to non-existent.

The report noted that chemical barge terminals are often located along the banks of the chemical plants, and are freely accessible along the riverside of the facility. Rail and truck assets often have no security beyond staging areas. Moreover, rail cars containing cyanide compounds, flammable liquid pesticides, liquefied petroleum gases, chlorine, acids and butadiene are often parked — unprotected — alongside residential areas.

Eyes, ears and noses

Human monitoring efforts alone can’t sufficiently get the security job done. They must be augmented by pervasive sensing. Pervasive sensing consists of hundreds or even thousands of wireless sensors, all communicating across secure, self-healing, ad-hoc networks. Pervasive sensing provides the eyes, ears and noses that can never be adequately scaled with human measures.

Robust wireless sensor systems can be permanently installed in containers for end-to-end supply chain logistics or along fence lines for perimeter monitoring. With IEEE 802.15.4 compliant architecture, products like RAEWatch networks from RAE Systems are immune to interference from radio sources such as wi-fi and cell phones. These networks provide radiation, temperature and intrusion sensing and are expandable to include other sensors. AreaRAE networks offer a radio transmission range of up to two miles and can be configured for a range of chemicals as well as gamma radiation.

Countering the threat

Applications in protecting the chemical infrastructure are numerous. Pervasive sensing networks can be deployed for fence line monitoring, for comprehensive integration of data generated by manufacturing processes, and since wireless sensors avoid massive retrofitting costs, they can monitor the ambient environment inside and outside a given facility. Remote sensor networks can be integrated with existing alarm systems or can be supported with real-time databases and layered notification systems.

Wireless, pervasive sensing networks counter the asymmetrical threat and provide additional, invaluable security when security best practices are implemented.