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Propane tanks threaten Times Square, but who is monitoring them?

When a journalist asked NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at a May 2 press conference, “Do propane tanks need to be registered in any way?” the Commissioner was not entirely correct when he answered, “I don’t believe they have to be registered. No.”

In fact, when they are used in New York City, liquefied petroleum gases – also known as LP gases, LPG or bottled gas, the most common of which are propane and butane – obtaining permits is required in certain instances, and it must be stored in portable cylinders.

“Cylinders must be approved for use by the Federal Department of Transportation,” explains a set of study materials prepared by the New York Fire Department. “Cylinders must be re-tested every five years. The Certificate of Fitness holder is responsible for checking the retest date and having the cylinder inspected, on time, by the [LPG] supplier.”

Of course, a would-be terrorist may not feel duty-bound to check the fitness of two propane tanks he is planning to detonate in Times Square.

In some circumstances, the individual or organization using a propane tank must first obtain a permit from the City of New York. For example, if the propane tank will be used to operate a “tar kettle” – which heats tar before it is used at a construction site – a permit is required. “This permit is issued by the Fire Commissioner,” says the FDNY’s study materials. “The permit is valid for one year.”

Another example is a forklift truck that is powered by LP gas. “A permit must be obtained to use a forklift in public areas,” says the FDNY. “The permit is issued by the Fire Commissioner.”

These permits are required because “LP Gas is highly explosive when it accumulates in one area,” says the fire department. “Combustible materials must be located at least 10 feet away from any LP Gas appliance or cylinder.”

Of course, the potential safety threat inherent in propane, and other combustible gases and chemicals, has long been understood by security officials. Even so, propane was treated as something of a special chemical when DHS prepared its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS). Because many small farmers and other agricultural organizations use propane in relatively small quantities on a regular basis – and because of the strong support from the National Propane Gas Association, DHS “clarified” its final rules back in 2008, so as to specifically exempt many smaller users of propane from the necessity of completing lengthy security assessment forms issued by DHS. These exemptions were described in an article published by GSN: Government Security News in March of 2008.

“NPGA has approximately 2,800 retail marketer members that operate over 8,000 bulk storage facilities,” said the propane gas association in a December 2009 letter to the U.S. Department of Labor. “Conservatively, there are at least 40 million propane gas cylinders that are primarily used in residential applications, such as outdoor grills and barbecues. Another 10 million tanks/cylinders are estimated in use in retail, farm, construction, forklifts and kitchens/restaurants applications.”

The bottom line: In theory, there are more requirements for registration and permits for using propane tanks in New York City than Commissioner Kelly may have realized, but there are also tens of millions of propane tanks being used across the country, and DHS has not been overly zealous in gathering security information from many of these smaller users.


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