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Friday, December 19, 2014 @ 04:12 PM gHale

A natural-gas leak at a fracking well that crews could not stop resulted in 25 families forced to evacuate their homes in eastern Ohio for three days.

Crews lost control of the Monroe County well on Saturday, said Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), the state agency that regulates oil and gas.

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Families evacuated from about 25 houses within a 1.5-mile radius of the well, located near the Ohio River about 160 miles east of Columbus.

The well was not on fire, but the gas could be explosive. “There’s still a steady stream of natural gas coming from the wellhead,” McCorkle said Wednesday.

Triad Hunter, a Texas company that also has offices in Marietta in southeastern Ohio, operates the well.

The company said in a statement the well had been temporarily plugged about a year ago while the company drilled and fracked three more wells on that site.

“Despite numerous precautionary measures taken in connection with the temporary plugging and abandonment operation, the well began to flow uncontrollably while recommencing production operations,” the company said.

Triad Hunter workers tried to bolt the cap back into place but couldn’t, the statement said.

Fracking involves drilling deep underground into shale formations; turning the drill horizontally; and blasting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the shale and free trapped oil and gas.

Triad Hunter crews were trying to unplug the well this past weekend when there was “an uncontrollable amount of pressure” that sent a stream of gas into the air, she said. The workers called for help and left. No one suffered an injury, McCorkle said.

She said families were able to go back into their houses during the day only. Emergency responders asked that they stay away at night.

McCorkle said ODNR is investigating. “This whole situation is uncommon in general,” she said. “A full investigation will give us more information as to what happened, what led up to the incident and why there was so much pressure.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 @ 10:12 AM gHale

A pinhole-sized leak in a pipe led to an estimated 8,000-gallon gasoline spill from a major distribution pipeline in Belton, SC, last week and work to clean it up will likely continue through this month.

Owned by the Plantation Pipe Line Company, the 26-inch diameter pipe runs 3,100 miles from Louisiana to Washington, D.C., and the leak occurred about a mile outside of Belton, company officials said. Kinder Morgan, the country’s largest energy infrastructure company, operates the pipeline.

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Workers turned the pipe off last Monday night, and crews drilled another tap to drain gasoline, said Jason A. Booth, a scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“These pipes are old and they’re bound to get leaks and cracks,” he said. “They can be minor and hard for the transfer station to detect a drop in pressure.”

Contractors likely will spend the next two to three weeks removing soil saturated with gasoline from the area.

An unnamed tributary of Browns Creek is about 1,000 feet from the leak, Booth said, and monitoring has shown gasoline has not reached the water. Officials will continue to observe the stream.

All residents in the area are on municipal water, and those lines are unaffected, he said.

The cause of the leak remains undetermined, said Melissa Ruiz, spokeswoman for Plantation Pipe Line Company. Workers did not detect a drop in line pressure, she said. Investigators have not determined when the leak began.

“All appropriate agencies have been notified and the company anticipates that there will be no customer impacts,” she said. An investigation into the cause and quantity of the release is under way.

Plantation Pipe Line is creating an environmental sampling plan in cooperation with the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the EPA, said DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra S. Harris.

Booth said the company soon will begin drilling holes in the ground at 50-foot increments to determine how far the gasoline had spread.

In South Carolina, the line enters in the Lake Hartwell area and continues through Belton and Spartanburg before heading toward Charlotte.

The same line broke in May at the company’s Anderson station during routine maintenance.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014 @ 11:12 AM gHale

There is now a new way to wirelessly detect hazardous gases and environmental pollutants, using a simple sensor that a smartphone can read.

These inexpensive sensors could end up widely deployed, making it easier to monitor public spaces or detect food spoilage in warehouses. Using this system, researchers showed they can detect gaseous ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, and cyclohexanone, among other gases.

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“The beauty of these sensors is that they are really cheap. You put them up, they sit there, and then you come around and read them. There’s no wiring involved. There’s no power,” said Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT. “You can get quite imaginative as to what you might want to do with a technology like this.”

For several years, Swager’s lab has been developing gas-detecting sensors based on devices known as chemiresistors, which consist of simple electrical circuits modified so their resistance changes when exposed to a particular chemical. Measuring that change in resistance reveals whether the target gas is present.

Unlike commercially available chemiresistors, the sensors developed in Swager’s lab require almost no energy and can function at ambient temperatures. “This would allow us to put sensors in many different environments or in many different devices,” Swager said.

The new sensors consist of modified near-field communication (NFC) tags. These tags, which receive the little power they need from the device reading them, function as wirelessly addressable barcodes and mainly see use for tracking products such as cars or pharmaceuticals as they move through a supply chain, such as in a manufacturing plant or warehouse.

NFC tags can end up read by any smartphone that has near-field communication capability, which is a part of newer smartphone models. These phones can send out short pulses of magnetic fields at radio frequency (13.56 megahertz), inducing an electric current in the circuit on the tag, which relays information to the phone.

To adapt these tags for their own purposes, the MIT team first disrupted the electronic circuit by punching a hole in it. Then, they reconnected the circuit with a linker made of carbon nanotubes specialized to detect a particular gas. In this case, the researchers added the carbon nanotubes by “drawing” them onto the tag with a mechanical pencil they first created in 2012, in which the pencil lead ends up replaced with a compressed powder of carbon nanotubes. The team refers to the modified tags as CARDs: Chemically actuated resonant devices.

When carbon nanotubes bind to the target gas, their ability to conduct electricity changes, which shifts the radio frequencies at which power can transfer to the device. When a smartphone pings the CARD, the CARD responds only if it can receive sufficient power at the smartphone-transmitted radio frequencies, allowing the phone to determine whether the circuit ended up altered and the gas is present.

Current versions of the CARDs can each detect only one type of gas, but a phone can read multiple CARDs to get input on many different gases, down to concentrations of parts per million. With the current version of the technology, the phone must be within 5 centimeters of the CARD to get a reading, but chemistry graduate student Joseph Azzarelli, the lead author of a paper on the subject, is currently working with Bluetooth technology to expand the range.

The researchers filed for a patent on the sensing technology and are now looking into possible applications. Because these devices are so inexpensive and with smartphones being able to read them, they could deploy nearly anywhere: Indoors to detect explosives and other harmful gases, or outdoors to monitor environmental pollutants.

Once an individual phone gathers data, the information could upload to wireless networks and combine with sensor data from other phones, allowing coverage of very large areas, Swager said.

The researchers are also pursuing the possibility of integrating CARDs into “smart packaging” that would allow people to detect possible food spoilage or contamination of products. Swager’s lab previously developed sensors that can detect ethylene, a gas that signals ripeness in fruit.

The CARDs could also incorporate into dosimeters to help monitor worker safety in manufacturing plants by measuring how much gas the workers are exposed to.

“Since it’s low-cost, disposable, and can easily interface with a phone, we think it could be the type of device that someone could wear as a badge, and they could ping it when they check-in in the morning and then ping it again when they check out at night,” Azzarelli said.

Monday, December 1, 2014 @ 05:12 PM gHale

A chemical spill at a plant in Hopewell, VA, may be the cause of the deaths of hundreds of fish, a spokesman for the state’s environmental agency said last week.

“We can’t say conclusively, but there does appear to be a connection,” said Bill Hayden of the Department of Environmental Quality.

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About 5,500 pounds of a chemical called ammonium carbonate, which dissolved in water, spilled at the Honeywell International Inc. plant, Hayden said. Honeywell officials said the spill occurred last Monday night.

While most of the spill ended up contained in a treatment lagoon, about 600 pounds of the chemical flowed into Gravelly Run, a stream that eventually leads to the James River, Hayden said.

Officials found several hundred fish, mainly blue catfish, dead in the stream Tuesday.

Ammonium carbonate is one of the main ingredients used produce caprolactam, the Hopewell plant’s main product, Honeywell said. Caprolactam is a part of nylon.

A DEQ inspector took water samples Tuesday, and it will take more than a week to get results, Hayden said. If the samples show water in the stream was high in ammonia, that would be further evidence the chemical spill killed the fish. Ammonia ends up produced when ammonium carbonate hits water, Hayden said.

Honeywell said Wednesday it is still investigating the cause of the spill.

“We regret the incident and are doing everything we can to determine if plant operations may have contributed to the loss of fish,” the statement said. “The plant invests significantly in equipment upgrades, safety controls, processes and operator training to minimize environmental excursions and to mitigate them if they happen.”

Hayden said the cause of the spill, and whether the incident will result in a state enforcement action, are under investigation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 @ 12:11 PM gHale

A Miami, AZ, smelter shut down after molten copper breached a processing vessel, causing a fire and explosions but no injuries, officials said.

The incident occurred late Wednesday night in Miami, which is about 70 miles east of Phoenix, said spokesman Eric Kinneberg of Phoenix-based Freeport McMorRan Inc.

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Kinneberg said the molten material that spilled on the ground inside and around a building ended up contained and is no longer flowing.

A.J. Howell of the Tri-City Fire District said explosions heard and felt by residents of Miami and the neighboring communities of Globe and Claypool happened when the molten copper came in contact with water.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 @ 11:11 AM gHale

Safety plans ended up put to a test at the Stepan Company chemical plant in Elwood, IL, after two leaks of sulfur trioxide in two different days, officials said.

On Thursday a cloud of chemicals released from a railroad tanker. On Friday, a vapor leak of sulfur trioxide lasted for more than 13 hours at the plant before officials stopped it.

About 1 a.m. Thursday, employees had just started offloading a rail car when a pressure relief valve malfunctioned, said Will County sheriff’s spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer. A small vapor cloud of sulfur trioxide sprayed into the air within the facility, which is along the Des Plaines River, just off Millsdale Road and northeast of Interstate 55.

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Elwood and 12 other fire departments assisted Stepan employees for a hazardous material alarm call.

“An additional small release was experienced while the rail car was being locked down,” Hoffmeyer said.

Stepan spokeswoman Kim Kumiega said no employees suffered injuries from the gaseous release, but all employees had to take shelter until officials could contain it.

Hoffmeyer said sheriff’s deputies also evacuated truck drivers waiting to make deliveries at the south gate.

Access roads closed until officials contained the gas and personnel ended up diverted to staging areas, according to Hoffmeyer. Kumiega said plant operations returned to normal by 10 a.m.

“There was no impact to the community,” Kumiega said. “We will be conducting a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the release.”

Sulfur trioxide sees use in the manufacturing of sulfuric acid and is a toxic chemical, according to Stepan documents. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said sulfuric gases in the atmosphere can contribute to acid rain.

“It’s definitely a material you don’t want to encounter if you don’t need to,” said Harold Damron, director of the Will County Emergency Management Agency.

Damron said there were no off-site complaints about the leak. Stepan kept the situation under control, he said.

“We had a few people on the scene throughout the night,” Damron said. “We were satisfied there wasn’t any off-site impact. They were using a water stream to knock the vapors down at the site.”

Several fire departments ended up called to the scene as a cautionary measure in case there was contamination or any impact on employees, Damron said. But the leak ended up knocked down by Stepan emergency crews.

Second Leak
In the Friday incident, a sulfur trioxide vapor leak lasted for more than 13 hours.

Stepan reported that the leak, which started at about 4 a.m., stopped at 5:30 p.m.

In both cases, company officials and local authorities said they were confident the contamination remained on-site without any hazard to the surround community.

“This incident is similar to yesterday,” Damron said.

Air monitors were set up outside of the plant Friday to check for possible impact, Damron said. He said the Elwood Fire Department and a multi-department hazardous materials team also were on site for independent confirmation of what was happening at the Stepan plant.

Both leaks occurred at rail cars, but they were separate rail cars, Kumiega said. Work crews were going to come in Saturday to conduct repairs, she said.

Crews used a fog stream to convert the leaked vapor into liquid and knock it to the ground where it could be contained on site, Damron said.

Although the leak lasted more than 13 hours Friday, it was small enough that it did not pose a hazard to the surrounding area, Damron said.

“I would compare it to a trickle from a water pipe rather than a pipe being broken,” Damron said. “It’s not occurring in any concentration that would be dangerous.”

One advantage in the containment efforts, Damron said, was you could use water to manage sulfur trioxide vapors.

“Being able to knock it down with the water fog is a big thing,” he said. “They still have to clean up the water. But that they can do right at the containment area. They don’t have to worry about it getting airborne.”

Sulfur trioxide is an ingredient used in manufacturing laundry detergent.

Stepan said the company had “engaged experts to help determine the cause.” The investigation into what caused the leaks was going to continue Saturday, Kumiega said.

Stepan also said the plant “will not return to normal operations until we are certain that the leak is stopped and have been assured by our experts and local authorities that the issue has been resolved.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014 @ 02:11 PM gHale

A process running in normal running conditions, while dangerous, is the safest time for any refinery, but when there is a startup or shut down condition, that is the cause of very tense times.

One perfect point in case is Tesoro refinery disaster in Anacortes, Washington April 2, 2010. That accident occurred during startup of the refinery’s “naphtha hydrotreater unit” after a maintenance shut down. A nearly 40-year-old heat exchanger violently ruptured, causing an explosion and fire that killed seven workers – the largest loss of life at a U.S. refinery since 2005.

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With that in mind, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released an important safety video into the fatal explosion and fire at the Tesoro refinery.

The CSB’s 14-minute safety video entitled “Behind the Curve” includes a 3D animation of the events that led up to this tragic accident as well as interviews with the CSB’s investigators and chairperson.

“The CSB is seriously concerned by the number of deadly refinery accidents in recent years,” said CSB Chairperson Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso. “We have concluded that extensive improvements must be made in how refineries are regulated at the state and federal level.”

The CSB’s investigation found an immediate cause of the tragedy to be long-term, undetected High Temperature Hydrogen Attack (HTHA) of the steel equipment, which led to the vessel rupture on the day of the accident. The CSB found the industry’s standard for determining vulnerability of equipment to HTHA, to be inadequate.

“High temperature hydrogen attack, or HTHA, is a common hazard that has long been known within the petrochemical industry,” said Investigator Lauren Grim in the video. “However, Tesoro engineers and corrosion experts did not believe it could occur within the heat exchanger that ultimately failed.”

The CSB’s investigation report, approved in May 2014, found a substandard safety culture at Tesoro, which led to a complacent attitude toward flammable leaks and occasional fires over the years.

In addition, the CSB found that the complexity of the startup procedure typically required more than just one outside operator. Yet operating procedures did not end up updated to account for the role of additional personnel during the hazardous non-routine work.

The CSB made recommendations in these areas to the industry group that issues guidance on HTHA, the American Petroleum Institute, as well as to Tesoro.

“The CSB found that if Tesoro had a strong safety culture, it would have addressed the ongoing leaks and defined a reasonable number of essential personnel for the startup activity,” said Investigator Dan Tillema in the video. “Had Tesoro done these things, we concluded that fewer workers would have been present on the night of the accident, and lives would have been spared.”

The CSB’s final report also recommended the governor and legislature of the State of Washington significantly strengthen the oversight of refineries.

The Board called on the state to require refineries to:
• Conduct more comprehensive hazard analyses and damage mechanism reviews
• Document the effectiveness of process safeguards
• Increase the role for worker representatives in process safety management
• Have company safety reviews examined by technically competent regulators

“Seven lives were lost at Tesoro, Moure-Eraso said. “It should not have happened. Companies, workers, and communities would all benefit from a more rigorous regulatory system that is focused on continuously lowering risks.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 @ 06:10 PM gHale

Five workers injured in an Eagle Ford shale oil rig fire are now undergoing treatment at the San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC).

That fire broke out at 6:45 p.m. Friday at a Pioneer Natural Resources rig off Highway 97 near Tilden, TX. That’s about 70 miles south of San Antonio.

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A Pioneer representative said the five workers were on the rig when the fire broke out. He said other workers put the fire out and called emergency responders to help the injured.

Emergency medical helicopters flew all five to SAMMC last night. Their conditions are not immediately available.

Pioneer said it’s not clear what caused the rig fire and an investigation is now underway. The company also said there was no oil spill from the burn site.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 @ 05:10 PM gHale

An apparent equipment failure in the main production building led to a chemical leak at the Honeywell Metropolis plant Sunday night.

The leak at the Metropolis, IL-based plant “was due to an apparent equipment failure in the main production building. Plant personnel followed all emergency procedures and plant safety systems performed as designed. There were no injuries and no indication that any UF6 material left the site. The plant is continuing its investigation into the incident and working to determine how much material was released,” said Honeywell spokesman Peter Dalpe.

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The leak was of UF6, or uranium Hexa-fluoride, which is toxic and reacts with water. Honeywell’s Metropolis plant is the only U.S. facility that converts uranium oxide into to uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which is then enriched to be used as fuel in nuclear power plants.

The leak began at 7:35 p.m. Sunday. “Plant personnel immediately activated emergency procedures and equipment and the plant’s trained emergency teams responded and contained the leak,” Dalpe said.

A white vapor did hover over the plant during the incident.

Honeywell said water contained the material in the area of the leak. “The water mitigation systems spray high volumes of water mist into the air and were the reason for the mist around the facility during the incident,” said Dalpe.

Honeywell contacted local and federal authorities about incident at the plant. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the federal agency responsible for monitoring safety issues at the plant.

The leak ended up contained to inside the building. While Honeywell was under a plant emergency, there was no danger to surrounding homes, Dalpe said.

An inspector from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission started an investigation at the plant on Tuesday, said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah.

“At this point we’re still in a fact-finding mode,” Hannah said. “We haven’t come to any conclusions about whether processes weren’t followed.” He said the investigation could take a few days to a week.

Monday, October 20, 2014 @ 04:10 PM gHale

It is time to put the notion of an air gap to rest.

Even systems thought to be in an air-gapped environment are not safe. An all in one printer can end up an attack vector for a smart bad guy. Just ask cryptographer Adi Shamir, co-inventor of the RSA cryptographic system, and researchers Yuval Elovici and Moti Guri from Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

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In theory, if a malicious program ends up installed on an air-gapped computer by an unsuspecting user via, say, a USB thumb drive, attackers should have a hard time controlling the malicious program or stealing data through it because there is no Internet connection. Getting in is the easy part, but just how do you get information out, and how can you send in an attack message?

The researchers found if a multifunction printer end up attached to such a computer, attackers could issue commands to a malicious program running on it by flashing visible or infrared light at the scanner lid when open.

Shamir presented the attack, which he called Scangate, Thursday during his keynote at the Black Hat Europe security conference in Amsterdam.

The researchers said if a source of light points repeatedly at the white coating on the inside of the scanner’s lid during a scanning operation, the resulting image will have a series of white lines on darker background. Those lines correspond to the pulses of light hitting the lid and their thickness depends on the duration of the pulses, Shamir said.

Using this observation the researchers developed Morse code to send pulses of light at different intervals and interpret the resulting lines as binary data—1s and 0s. Malware running on an air-gapped system could end up programmed to initiate a scanning operation at a certain time — for example, during the night — and then interpret the commands sent by attackers using the technique from far away.

Shamir estimated several hundred bits of data can end up sent during a single scan. That’s enough to send small commands to activate functionality built into the malware.

The researchers successfully tested the attack from 200, 900 and 1,200 meters against a computer and printer located in a building in Beersheba, Israel, where EMC, Oracle and other big companies have research centers. They used a laser to flash visible light at the window of the office housing the scanner, illuminating the room.

Using a more powerful laser could produce reliable results from up to 5 kilometers away, according to Shamir. An attacker would likely use infrared light because it’s invisible to the naked eye, but the researchers only tested with infrared light over a short distance because using a high-powered infrared laser can be harmful to people’s eyesight.

Instead of waiting for the malware to initiate a scan, attackers could also wait until a person in the office scans a document with the lid open and then run their attack. In that case, the lines would appear on the sides of the scanned document because of the scanner’s larger surface that leave an uncovered border.

The researchers also found a way for the malware to send data back to the attackers by using the light produced by the scanner itself. Since the malware can initiate and cancel scanning operations, attackers can derive information from the amount of time the scanner’s light is on and reflects off the opened lid.

This is not as efficient as receiving commands, but can work to exfiltrate a few bits of data at a time. It is possible to repeat the operation to eventually exfiltrate critical information, like encryption keys, Shamir said.

Detecting the light generated by the scanner from far away would require very sensitive equipment and if the computer is in an office on a higher floor, the attacker would have a hard time getting good visibility. This can end up solved by using a quadcopter drone to get closer and observing the scanner from a better angle, Shamir said.

The technique is similar to the side-channel attacks that can derive cryptographic keys by analyzing a computer system’s power consumption, electromagnetic leaks or even sound during a cryptographic operation.

There are other examples of air-gapped systems suffering infection. The Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services, hit air-gapped computers at Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz through USB drives.