Sound science, updated safeguards vital to chemical security, professor tells Congress

Because the nation's chemical infrastructure was never designed with regard to preventing or responding to acts of terrorism, intensive research is needed to determine the most effective ways of safeguarding its existing aspects as well as new components, said M. Sam Mannan, a Texas A&M University chemical engineering professor, testifying Friday before a key U.S. House of Representatives homeland security subcommittee.

Photo of Dr. M. Sam Mannan

Addressing the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technology of the Committee on Homeland Security, Mannan underscored the importance of the development of updated standards and procedures for new chemical plants and delivery systems as well as the need to determine realistic implementation of safeguards for existing chemical plants.

Mannan, who is director of the Texas A&M University System Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, did however caution that mandating the evaluation and implementation of such inherent safety options must be based on sound science.

"Requirements for inherently safer technology should be based upon good science aimed at making the industry secure, avoid over-regulation, and create a level playing field," Mannan said. "U.S. facilities could be at a competitive disadvantage if required to implement unproven technologies simply to meet a regulator's position that such technology is more inherently safe."

Furthermore, added Mannan, in some cases, a seemingly clear choice with regard to inherent safety may create some undesired and unintended consequences, such as reducing risk associated with transport of a chemical while increasing the risk of storing that chemical.

Given this potential, issues such as risk migration, reduction of overall risk and practical risk reduction should be evaluated whenever an inherent safety option is considered, Mannan said.

In addition to focusing on prevention of and protection from chemical-related disasters resulting from acts of terrorism and natural disasters, Mannan also emphasized the importance of response and recovery plans.

Most of the large, multi-national facilities that are members of major industry associations, he noted, have voluntarily conducted some form of vulnerability analysis. What is not clear is whether these analyses have been used to integrate planning for response and recovery efforts in coordination with local agencies and the public, Mannan said.

"One very stark lesson from the 9/11 events is that the 'first' first-responders are usually members of the public," Mannan stated.

"Whether natural or man-made, disasters will continue to happen," he added. "However, as we have seen with the 9/11 events, hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and chemical incidents such as the Bhopal disaster, planning and response is crucial in being able to reduce the consequences and to recover from the disaster more rapidly."

Towards this goal, it is essential to conduct vulnerability analysis, and response and recovery planning on a chemical plant-specific level, an area-and region-specific level, and a national level, Mannan explained.

In addition, Mannan called for science and technology investments across a wide variety of areas and leading to the development of incident data bases, which could be used for improving planning, response capability and infrastructure changes.

"Recent experience in this regard is the improvement in planning and response for the hurricane Rita from lessons learned from the hurricane Katrina," Mannan said.

He also emphasized the need for research to be conducted on decision-making, particularly under stress, with the aim of improving management systems; basic and fundamental research on design of resilient engineered systems; and research on self-healing materials and biomimetics.

"Chemical security and protection of the chemical infrastructure is of extreme importance to our nation, and I am pleased that the U.S. Congress is continuing to pay attention to issues relating to chemical facility anti-terrorism," Mannan said.

A professional engineer and certified safety professional, Mannan is a Regents Professor, fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration and National Fire Protection Association. In addition to his many professional honors and achievements, Mannan has served as a consultant to numerous entities in both the academic and private sectors, including the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center was established in 1995 through the generosity of T. Michael O'Connor. His goal - and the center's mission - is to improve safety in the chemical process industry -- to make safety second nature. The center seeks to develop safer processes, equipment, procedures, and management strategies that will minimize losses in the process industry.

Contact: M. Sam Mannan at (979) 862-3985 or mannan@tamu.edu or Valerie Green at (979) 845-6884 or val-green@tamu.edu.