Biggest U.S. Industrial Accidents May Be Waiting to Happen

VIDEO: Killer Sludge in Hungary
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Western Hungary still is digging out from under 24.7 million cubic feet of caustic red sludge--a toxic tide unleashed when a containment pond at an old aluminum factory gave way. The breach killed nine, injured 150, forced home evacuations and ruined property over a 15.6 square mile area.

Hardly had the mud subsided, though, when an environmental group fingered another 150 industrial sites in the Danube region, each a potential disaster in the making. Here in the U.S., what industrial dangers lie in wait? Experts suggested this list of the most unsavory possibilities to ABC News:

Manure Lagoons

"Manure lagoon" may sound like the title of a Captain-and-Tennille hit single; but the phrase in fact describes impoundments of animal waste in liquid form on cattle, hog, dairy or chicken farms. These can contain millions or even tens of millions of gallons of excrement. Dams designed to contain the waste have on occasion failed.

Death and Injury in the Workplace

One such incident took place in 1995 in North Carolina, spilling some 22 million gallons of hog feces into the local watershed. It made its way to the New River, killing fish by the thousands, before going on to pollute 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands. Even intact lagoons can taint ground water, since local regulations don't always require farmers to lay down an impervious barrier or lining between the swill and the earthen bottom of the lagoon.

Brent Newell, general counsel for California's Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, says manure lagoons are a problem getting only bigger, not smaller. "They should definitely be on the list of things to worry about," he says.

As agriculture becomes increasingly industrial, as farms and ranches grow in size, the number and size of lagoons is growing. The potential harm done by them, he says, is not limited to inundation and seepage. Every day a variety of gasses and particles escapes from them into the air.

One is toxic ammonia. Another is hydrogen sulfide, emitted by hog lagoons, "a brain toxin" that Newell says has poisoned people living near lagoons. Then, too, there's methane, which he calls "the 800-pound gorilla" for its contribution to promoting global warming.

There is concern about lagoons on hog farms in North Carolina and Iowa; as well as on dairies in California and Texas, says Newell, who adds that these pools are a nationwide problem.

Chlorine Gas

"It's not like you go to sleep and die painlessly. It's a horrible death." Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, is talking about what happens when you inhale chlorine gas, used widely in water treatment and the plastics industry. "It reacts with any liquid to turn into hydrochloric acid. You die of pulmonary edema. Your lungs melt and you drown in the fluid of your lungs."

In one of the scariest incidents to date, a tankcar full of chlorine gas broke loose from a train in 2007 and went hurtling through downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, at 50 miles an hour. Says Hind, "The authorities had to scramble to open intersections and just hope it didn't flip over." It didn't.

Had the gas been released, however, an estimate done by the Homeland Security Council suggests 17,500 people might have died. In 2005 nine people did die when tank cars carrying chlorine derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina.

"Unstoppable," a Denzel Washington movie debuting Nov. 12, has the actor struggling to stop a runaway train with cars of toxic gas from bearing down on a major U.S. city.

Industrial Worm

Stuxnet--a computer worm more sophisticated and potentially more destructive than any previously discovered--has been attacking industrial facilities for about a year. Who made it and why remain a mystery, but security professionals regard it as so extraordinarily complex that it could only be the work of a nation-state or a sophisticated, well-financed private group.

Dr. Udo Helmbrecht, executive director of ENISA, a European cyber-security agency, calls it a "new class and dimension" of malware. "Stuxnet is really a paradigm shift," he says. "The fact that perpetrators activated such an attack tool can be considered as the 'first strike'--i.e., one of the first organized, well prepared attacks against major industrial resources."

The worm enters Windows-based industrial control systems of factories, chemical plants, power plants and transmission systems by way of a corrupted memory stick and is thought to do such things as change autonomously the speed of pumps and other equipment, thus creating dangerous situations of over-pressure or under-pressure. It doesn't need human guidance to work its mischief.

It first was discovered in Malaysia but has now been detected in industrial facilities in China, Iran, Germany, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. The Christian Science Monitor called it "essentially a precision, military-grade cyber missile," its exact target yet unknown. Experts have speculated it might originally have been engineered to disable Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant.

Pipeline Blasts

The explosion that leveled a San Bruno, California, neighborhood in September--sending flames 300 feet into the air--wasn't the first and likely will not be the last conflagration caused by a ruptured natural gas pipeline (in this case, one belonging to the Pacific Gas & Electric Company).

San Bruno's fire and explosion destroyed 53 homes and damaged 120 more. It killed seven and injured more than 50. "The central ball of fire," said a reporter for the S.F. Chronicle, "raged past nightfall before abating. By then, houses on several blocks and thick stands of trees were engulfed in flames."

The death toll wasn't the worst in pipeline history. An incident ten years ago in Carlsbad, New Mexico, killed 12. Pipeline blasts in the past five years have killed 60 and injured 230.

Though roughly half these incidents were the fault of parties other than utilities (builders, say, or cable companies who accidentally dug into underground pipes), pipeline operators themselves were at fault in at least two dozen cases where they dug into their own lines. Other incidents for which they were responsible involved corrosion, faulty equipment and operator error. The cause of the San Bruno incident is still under investigation.

The age of a pipeline matters less than inspection and maintenance. So says Carl Weier, head of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a government-financed watchdog group. "Most of the pipelines in this country are 40 to 50 years old. If properly maintained, they don't present a danger."

But even a new pipeline, he says, will go to failure if not well inspected and maintained. Corrosion caused the Carlsbad event, according to inspectors who examined the wreckage. Weier thinks the danger of future explosions could be defused by better and more frequent inspection, especially in rural areas, where pipelines get a thorough going-over only once every seven years.

Fracking

Let's start with the good news. The natural gas reserves of the U.S. have increased so substantially that we now have close to a 100-year proven supply. Reserves of potential natural gas have risen in two years from 1.32 trillion cubic feet to 1.84 trillion. The increase is attributable not so much to discoveries of new deposits but to a technique--hydraulic fracturing or fracking--that makes it possible to extract gas from shale deposits at depths of up to 8,000 feet. It uses both drilling and the injection of high-pressure water to fracture rock underground, thereby releasing the natural gas it contains.

Fracking has been around since 1949. But its use in recent years has grown exponentially. Its ability to produce gas isn't in dispute. Its environmental consequences are.

Critics, including filmmaker Josh Fox, whose documentary "Gasland" has aired on HBO, point to the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, whose citizenry say fracking (or chemicals associated with it) has ruined property, contaminated wells, killed livestock and so infused domestic tap water with methane that it has on occasion caught fire. Then, there's Bainbridge, Ohio's, exploding house: gas from a fracked well migrated into the home's basement and detonated, while damaging the wells of more than a dozen other homes.

"We think it's a big deal," says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "What they're supposed to do is drill down, go through underground aquifers, and use multiple layers of casing--steel pipe and concrete--to protect the aquifer. If they don't do it properly, they create a pathway for contamination, either by methane or by chemicals used in fracking. You're forever altering the geologic layer. Contamination might not show up for years or decades." The long-term consequences she calls "a looming disaster."

Travis Windle, an industry spokesman, says that wells properly constructed and cased pose no risk and could "in no way communicate" with ground water. That's a view shared by Pennsylvania's top environmental regulator, John Hanger, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, who earlier this month pronounced fracking safe, telling Reuters, "There's a lot of focus in the media and the public on the problems that we have not had." As for the exploding house, a year-long investigation by Ohio regulators determined that an improper cement job on the well's casing was in part to blame.

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