Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Airport Fuel Supply - the Real Fire Risks

In August 2010 two men were convicted of plotting to blow up JFK Airport’s fuel farm and underground pipelines running under the Queens neighbourhood, aiming to killing thousands of people. Subsequently, one of the men was jailed for life, and the other for 15 years. JFK’s fuel farm’s steel cylindrical tanks hold 121 million litres of aviation fuel. The prospect of terrorist attacks on tanks holding millions of litres of highly flammable fuel, and pipelines running under densely populated areas, sounds alarming, but the plot was unfeasible, more talk than action. There is no oxygen inside the fuel farm or pipelines so ignition is impossible, and unauthorized use of the heavy machinery required for digging underground and puncturing fuel tanks and thick steel pipelines would be highly conspicuous. In the unlikely event of interference, it would immediately be detected with alarm systems.

Puncturing a fuel farm would require an air strike or a ground to air missile. This is what occurred when the Lam Luk Ka oil depot in Bangkok was targeted during anti government protests on 21 April 2010. A grenade fired from the motorway, just 200 metres away, hit one of the depot’s 19 tanks, T-401D, which supplies Suvarnabhumi Airport, and it took an hour to extinguish the fire. The tank was holding 9 million litres of fuel at the time. The grenade made a 4 centimetre hole in the tank but did not ignite the main body of fuel as it did not penetrate the protective double layering.

In New York, the mundane reality is a series of accidental leaks from the fuel pipeline to JFK and La Guardia airports, which runs under Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens neighbourhoods. Stephen Muther, Vice President of Buckeye Partners, the firm operating the pipeline, admitted that the firm’s operation of the, has been prone to ‘mishaps’. In 1985 a construction worker drove a digger into a valve in the Staten Island section, spilling over 130,000 litres of fuel into the street and dozens of homes were evacuated. In 2009, a maintenance worker accidentally drilled a hole in the pipeline running just 1.2 metres under Queens, and firefighters poured flame retardant foam on nearly 1,900 litres of fuel that escaped into the street. The fuel supply to JFK has also polluted water. In autumn 2008 a leak was discovered in a pipeline running only a metre deep under an environmentally sensitive marshland area near one of JFK’s runways. Six months later over 340,000 litres of fuel had been recovered and the full extent of the spill was still unknown. JFK’s fuel farm also had a mishap, an electrical fire, in May 2008, and flights were delayed for nearly an hour until the fire was extinguished.

The risk of jet fuel fires occurs when the fuel is accidentally exposed to air, and ground crew are the most at risk. Planes are refuelled with hoses or hydrant dispenser vehicles which tuck under the wing. On 5th September 2001 a 24 year old ground service worker died from injuries when refuelling a British Airways Boeing 777 at Denver Airport. A large ball of fire engulfed the hydrant truck and the aircraft’s left wing. Witnesses thought that fuel leaked when a hose either came loose or ruptured.

Fuel depots and refineries, far from the airport site, are more vulnerable to fire than fuel farms. Overall, considering the global scale of operations, airport fuel supply is well managed, but when accidents do occur the risks to people and the environment are serious. The FBI was called in to investigate whether a fire at a petrol and jet fuel depot in the city of Bayamon in Puerto Rico, which ignited on 23rd October 2009, was started intentionally. An explosion triggered fire which spread to 21 of the 40 tanks on the site, and sent 2.8 magnitude earthquake forces which were felt in several neighbourhoods. Firefighters battled with a blaze for two days, over 1,500 people were evacuated and thick smoke billowed over the area. Suspicions were raised by graffiti reading ‘Boom, fire, RIP, Gulf’ in three locations in the vicinity, but the investigation concluded that the cause of the explosion was a fuel leak which occurred while one of the tanks was being filled. This created an enormous cloud of gas vapour, which was then ignited by an unidentified source.

On 5th May 2010 a tanker truck exploded at a loading dock at the AGE Refinery in San Antonio, Texas. Two workers were injured, one critically, but a major disaster was averted. More than 100 firefighters worked for six hours to contain the fire and prevent it from igniting 12 nearby tanks of jet fuel. Fire Chief Charles Hood said that if this had happened the area ‘could have seen a major explosion big enough to kill people a half-mile away’.

Underground jet fuel pipelines are entangled with gas, petroleum, and water supplies, bringing the risk of an explosion if they are accidentally punctured during maintenance work. In 2004 a jet fuel pipeline supplying San Jose Airport, running under Walnut Creek in San Francisco, exploded during construction of a water supply pipeline. An excavator punctured a high pressure pipeline and five workers were killed and four suffered serious burns. Workers had accidentally cut into the fuel pipeline, resulting in a huge explosion and a fire ball several storeys high. In May 1989 a train derailed in Muscoy in San Bernadino County, California, killing four people and destroying seven homes. Two weeks later, after residents had returned to their homes, an underground jet fuel pipeline damaged by the accident ruptured and exploded, killing two people and burning down 11 homes.

Road tankers supplying fuel to airports are more vulnerable to spills and fires than pipelines, as traffic accidents can result in leakage of fuel and highly flammable vapour. Whilst the amounts of fuel carried in trucks are relatively small in comparison to the millions in refineries and depots, they can pose a risk when accidents occur in populated areas. A truck towing two trailers of aviation fuel along Highway 20 in a rural area near Colusa, California on 25th March 2008 caught fire when a piece of metal from the truck dragged along the highway and sparks ignited the fuel. Firefighters contained grass fires on both sides of the road and decided to let the blaze burn itself out, sending a pall of black smoke over the area. A few hours later nothing remained but the frame of the truck and melted metal all over the highway.

On 17th June 2010 a jet fuel truck overturned at the intersection of Highway 31 in Montgomery, Alabama. Nearly 19,000 litres of jet fuel were spilled, which took about 40 firefighters several hours to clean up. Just ten days later, on 27th June 2010, disaster was narrowly averted, when a tanker carrying jet fuel to TF Green Airport in Massachusetts flipped over on its side in the town of Foxboro. The accident occurred only 35 metres from people sleeping in their homes. All the fuel, over 45,000 litres, gushed out. Firefighters from 14 communities joined the TF Green Airport HazMat team and covered the spill in foam to prevent it catching fire. It was fortunate that the tanker skidded onto grass. If it had crashed into hard pavement, it would have been likely to produce sparks, which would have ignited the fuel into a dangerous fireball. Two days after the Foxboro incident, on 29th June, a plane being prepared for flight at Kickapoo Airport in Texas leaked over 3,000 litres of fuel onto the parking area. The airport hazmat team and ten units from the Wichita fire service sprayed foam on the spilled fuel, then trucks dumped sand to absorb it.

The litany of minor accidents in the jet fuel supply chain to US airports continued over the following few months. Fortunately, there were no casualties but the incidents added to the workload of America’s fire and HazMat teams.

• On 14th July 2010 over 7,500 litres of jet fuel leaked from a tanker loading a fuel station at Sea-Tac Airport (Seattle-Tacoma).
• On 22nd September 2010 a section of the road between Farmville and Chesterfield County in Virginia was closed down after a 30,000 litre tanker spilled jet fuel.
• On 24th September 2010 a truck overturned near terminal 3 at Chicago O'Hare Airport, spilling 'hundreds of gallons' of fuel and causing delays.
• 30th September 2010 - The northbound lanes of 805 highway San Diego were closed for four hours after a tanker carrying jet fuel jack knifed and collided with the guardrail. The truck fortunately only spilled a few litres of diesel on the road as it had just delivered over 29,500 litres of jet fuel to Brown Field Airport.
• 7th December 2010 – An accident in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, involved three vehicles. No jet fuel spilled on the road but the process of transferring the fuel into another tanker took several hours. The highway was closed for three hours.


Karl said...

That's one of the risk I think. You should probably consider dealing with it. Thanks for the info.

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jelly andrews said...
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