Five Rules for Ammonia Plant Security

With terrorism on the rise, a food or beverage plant's refrigeration system is both a target and a weapon.

By R.A. Norton

Ammonia-based refrigeration is increasingly common in commercial food processing, offering economic and environmental advantages over older chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigeration systems. Ammonia gas is lighter than air and, if released, can form a cloud that can affect individuals downwind. Leaks in ammonia systems have caused deaths in food processing plants; last year, for example, a worker  was killed at the Stavis Seafoods Warehouse in Boston, resulting in a fine of $173,000  by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The government and military are becoming increasingly concerned about ammonia refrigeration gas as a potential target in the U.S. because the terrorist group ISIS has used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. ISIS had “large quantities” of ammonia stockpiled in and around Mosul in northern Iraq, clearly indicating the group sees its potential as a chemical weapon, United Nations Human Rights Office official Ravina Shamdasani noted in 2016.

ISIS is of particular concern because as the group is increasingly pressed on the battlefield, trained fighters are returning to their countries of origin, creating a growing threat. The Committee of the U.N. Security Council on ISIS and al-Qaida concluded that some “have returned with the specific intention and willingness to commit terrorist attacks.”  The security situation is so pronounced that France’s top anti-terrorism prosecutor has characterized the situation of returning radicalized individuals who have received weapons and explosive training as a ticking “time bomb” , meaning it is not a question of whether they will attack, but when.

Europe appears particularly vulnerable, but U.S. companies cannot be complacent about the threat. More and more, terrorists are sympathetic “virtualized jihadists,” not necessarily directly connected to ISIS. Many are embedded in their societies and often employed, giving them access to locations and resources they might otherwise be unable to access. What is more, attackers are increasingly using readily available resources (such as cars, trucks, knives, etc.), rather than relying on more sophisticated means, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are more likely to be detected by police agencies. Purchase of potential explosives precursors is being more closely monitored and cross-checked with intelligence data.

With all of this in mind, companies need to review corporate ammonia refrigeration security plans. Five simple rules should be considered and remediation immediately implemented if deficiencies are noted:

Rule 1: Regularly review ammonia refrigeration and facility maintenance plans. Ammonia refrigeration system operation should be continually monitored, both at the system site and remotely by trained and certified refrigeration staff. Maintenance records should be scrupulously kept and archived in compliance with company policy and local, state and federal requirements. Refrigeration personnel should be up to date on training and certification.

Rule 2: Control employee access to ammonia refrigeration systems. Access to ammonia plant system areas should be strictly limited to certified maintenance personnel and key supervisory employees. Hourly food facility or warehouse employees should not be able to access or pass through areas in or around ammonia refrigeration plants.

Rule 3: Carefully screen all personnel with access to refrigeration plant systems. If outside contractors are used to perform specific maintenance actions, make sure the vendor screens and monitors its own employees, using the same or better criteria. If a refrigeration plant worker appears disgruntled, restrict his or her access to those systems immediately, either temporarily until employee issues are resolved or permanently if termination is anticipated. Always remember that a disgruntled employee with access to corporate threats is a food corporation’s greatest vulnerability.

Rule 4: If not already present, surveillance cameras systems should be installed to monitor facility access points and refrigeration plant operational areas. Video recordings should be archived according to company policy. Refrigeration plant areas should be treated as high-risk areas akin to the concentration/vulnerability sites included in corporate food defense plans. Surveillance cameras systems serve two purposes. First, if a security incident involving a refrigeration plant should occur, a legal record exists. Second, surveillance systems enable first responders and others to monitor and assess a situation before entering affected areas during an emergency situation.

Rule 5: Carefully consider the location of the ammonia plant in relationship to areas where corporate or vendor vehicles may be present. Ammonia refrigeration plants are often legacy systems, placed in locations convenient to maintenance or to refrigerated lockers and freezers. Being legacy systems, they often were placed without consideration of their vulnerability to attack (for example, near an outside wall). Obviously, moving a system would be cost prohibitive.

Deficiencies can be remediated by strategic placement of robust barriers to prevent a vehicular breach, which must be considered because ISIS has encouraged sympathizers to use vehicles to kill wherever possible. Corporations are advised to consult facility security companies with proven track records of military and government facility security contracts.

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