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Critical Infrastructure Vulnerable to Mischief

Most of the discussion about critical infrastructure security and vulnerability centers on terrorism. But the fact is that "normal" vandalism. Last Monday, three teenagers in Tampa Florida drilled a hole through an ammonia gas line, apparently believing that money was hidden inside the 6" pipeline. The pipeline leads to a phosphate factory in nearby Polk County where the ammonia is used to make fertilizer.

So here we are, six years after the attacks of September 11th and a screwball teenager is able to damage an unsecured gasline, releasing a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia, forcing the evacuation of surrounding Hillsborough County residents, endagering public safety and creating an environmental hazard. Although the flow of the ammonia was stopped after the leak was detected and the pipeline shut down, the ammonia will be absorbed into the nearby rvier water. Experts from the U.S. Coast Guard anf the EPA were on scene to assess the environmental impact of the release.

Pipelines are regulated by the federal transportation department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, with the federal Transportation Security Administration assisting on security issues.

A TSA spokeswoman said the agency has reviewed 66 pipeline network security plans and made more than 100 on-site inspections nationwide. But it was unclear late Tuesday whether it has examined pipelines in the Tampa Bay area.

Nationwide, the number of "significant incidents" involving pipeline breaks dropped to 34 in 2006 from a high of 93 in 1988. The government threshold for such an incident includes events resulting in death, hospitalization, more than $50,000 in damage, or fires and explosions.

The leak burned the teenager who has been charged with criminal mischief and had been treated at the Tampa General Hospital with chemical burns on 18% of his body. Of course, the problem in this case is that the pipeline is privately owned, and the security is the responsibility of the company. This is much like the need for security at local utility systems, where the companies maintain their own departments of security. Previously, I've written about the importance of public-private partnerships when it comes to critical infrastructure security. This incident is probably a good example. But this also shows that an act by a stupid teenager can lead to problematic results.