Hazardous-materials trucks: terror threat?
Technology could reduce the risk by a third, but at a cost of $1.1 billion to the industry.
When he crisscrossed the East Coast in his big rig, New Jersey truck driver Bob Grant hauled everything from baby powder to rocket fuel. His specialty was hazardous materials, or hazmats, such as gasoline, butane, and diesel fuel.
Then came 9/11. Worried that terrorists would hijack his tanker truck and use it as a weapon, Mr. Grant switched to dump trucks and retired a few years later.
His jitters reflect a growing concern about terrorist truck bombs. In Tunisia in 2002, a suicide terrorist linked to Al Qaeda detonated a propane tanker beside a synagogue, killing 21 people. A 2004 visit to Iraq by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was punctuated by a fuel-truck attack that burned a section of Baghdad. These and scores of other truck attacks worldwide have fueled a growing debate over whether the United States is vulnerable to a similar strike. Last August, the FBI warned of a possible fuel-truck attack in a major US city.
The federal government's post-9/11 programs are enough to protect hazmat trucking, say federal officials and trucking organizations. Some security experts say more needs to be done. At issue: Should the government force the industry to spend $1.1 billion – about $5,500 per truck – on new technologies that could reduce the truck-bomb threat by a third?
"If you gave me a tanker truck and a phosphorous bomb, I could make a huge explosion anywhere I want," says Randy Larsen, an analyst with the Institute for Homeland Security in Alexandria, Va., a nonprofit consulting firm. "Hazmat security should be among the Top 10 national concerns, but we don't act like it is."
Ever since Timothy McVeigh drove an explosive-laden truck into the garage of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Americans have been aware of truck bombs. But Mr. McVeigh's homemade bomb was only 2 tons. Large hazmat 18-wheelers – Class 6 trucks – can haul 20 times as much weight.
Every day, some 800,000 hazmat loads hit the road, carrying everything from chlorine and gasoline to liquefied natural gas and radioactive material each year, according to a recent study by the Transportation Security Administration. Nearly 2 in 5 of those shipments are classified as "extreme risk."
Such shipments are "dangerous and ready-made weapons," the Department of Transportation concluded in 2004, and are "especially attractive" to terrorists.
Since 9/11, the federal government has tightened trucking security. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began in 2004 requiring fingerprinting and background checks on drivers with hazmat licenses. It also instituted a "highway watch" program to help drivers spot threats. The Department of Transportation also requires hazmat truck companies to have detailed security plans.
"There is a much sharper realization among hazmat truckers since 9/11 that you've got to be more alert," says John Conley, president of the National Tank Truck Carriers Association. That includes "things as basic as locking your truck. Our drivers understand their loads could be used in a bad way."
But these steps aren't enough, several industry observers say.
"Normal trucking operations are still an open invitation to a terrorist," says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Inc. in Grain Valley, Mo. "Even now, five years later, I don't know if they've really tightened up."
These observers point to multiple vulnerabilities. "My biggest concern is that we've got pretty lax security at a lot of trucking terminals," says a terminal manager for a large liquid bulk hazmat carrier on the East Coast, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to news media. "It's not uncommon at all to see several tankers already loaded with hazmat, and the gates to these facilities are wide open most of the time. It's inviting trouble."
Such vulnerability rises dramatically after a truck hits the open road. Hijackers could take it by force, many agree.
Available technologies, however, could prove a major deterrent, says the Transportation Department. Its 2004 study found eight technologies were largely successful, including satellite-based communications, global positioning tracking systems, remote vehicle-disabling devices, and "panic buttons" that send out an instantaneous alert to law enforcement. Biometric identification had some problems but was considered promising.
Such a portfolio of technologies could reduce the hijacking threat by about 36 percent, the DOT study concluded. At the same time, the technologies could save the industry an estimated $4.1 billion through improved operating efficiencies, it found.
As of 2003, nearly two-thirds of the nation's 115,000 fuel trucks had global positioning systems and wireless communications – the basic platform for more advanced systems. But only 12 percent had a panic button, and just 8 percent had remote vehicle disabling, the study found. And getting the industry to adopt these might require government mandates – something the industry opposes.
"We're not supporting the mandating of any technology simply because you are a hazardous-materials transporter," Mr. Conley says. "Tell me what you're hauling, and we'll tell if it makes sense."
Some truckers say the technology is vital. "I don't know why this technology isn't moving faster into the industry," says Reggie Dupre, president of Dupre Transport, which transports a range of hazardous materials in a 350-truck tanker fleet based in Lafayette, La.
During a year-long federal test, one of Mr. Dupre's drivers accidentally bumped a "panic button" device. Within minutes, police had the rig surrounded.
Tanker trucks carrying liquefied energy gases have worried terror experts since the 1970s. Now, with shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) set to soar in coming years alongside already robust shipments of liquefied petroleum gas, some security experts are again sounding the alarm. Their prime evidence: a truck accident in Spain.
Industry officials have long argued that LNG trucks are almost immune to explosion. But in 2002, an LNG truck in Spain flipped over, burned, then exploded into a 500-foot fireball that killed the driver and burned two others.
"The severity of this kind of explosion is something people haven't usually considered applicable to LNG trucks," says Jerry Havens, former director of the Chemical Hazards Research Center at the University of Arkansas. "But what happened in Spain changes that picture. It shows you've got the potential for a massive explosion."
Despite the Spain incident, industry spokesmen say LNG is not explosive.
"We don't view LNG tractor trailers as a high target for any intentional attacks whatsoever," says Bill Cooper, of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, a coalition of energy providers. "It would not explode, just burn back to its ignition source. Therefore you have to wonder if that's really a target-rich environment."
When an LNG tanker truck flipped in Massachusetts in May and another LNG tanker burned in Nevada last summer, neither produced an explosion, he notes.
But if terrorists are involved, then the equation changes, Dr. Havens and other experts argue. A hijacked LNG tanker truck could be rigged to explode fairly easily, Richard Wilson, a Harvard physicist, warned in a 2003 speech.
One thing is clear: More LNG trucks will hit the road in coming years if the federal government approves new LNG terminals at US ports.