JYA in NYT
nobody at dizum.com
Sun Aug 29 02:30:05 PDT 2004
August 29, 2004
Mapping Natural Gas Lines: Advise the Public, Tip Off the Terrorists
By IAN URBINA
John Young says he is an agent for change, hoping to point out places
where the government needs to bolster national security. Since 1996,
he has been posting documents on his Web site, ranging from detailed
maps of nuclear storage facilities in New Mexico to aerial
photographs of police preparations for the Republican National
Convention. He has never attracted much attention from the
authorities, and what he does is fully legal.
But last month, Mr. Young, a 68-year-old architect originally from
Odessa, Tex., began publishing maps and pictures of natural gas
pipelines in New York City on his site (www.cryptome.org). One
photograph was of a large sign in Midtown Manhattan warning about the
presence of a major gas main, a sign that had been meant to prevent
deadly accidents. Within a week, the company that owns the pipeline
took the sign down.
"They posted the signs because they thought someone might
accidentally blow the pipeline up,'' Mr. Young said. "Now, they're
taking them down because they think someone might intentionally blow
For Mr. Young - and for a range of experts across the country - the
strange and unnoticed little episode in Manhattan underscores one of
the great tensions of the post-9/11 world: how to balance the desire
for secrecy with decisions on what is best for public safety.
Few issues highlight that tension better than the topic of natural
Private industry and local governments have spent much of the last
several decades trying to make natural gas pipelines safer by
publicizing where they are. Natural gas, highly explosive and
transported in pipes underneath unknowing residents or uncharted
along waterways, has been the cause of scores of lethal accidents -
fiery explosions caused by misdirected backhoes or wayward boat
But recent concerns have pushed in the opposite direction.
Increasingly, gas companies have been clearing their Web sites of
pipeline maps previously used by contractors before excavating.
Almost all nautical charts once indicated where gas pipes run. Fewer
"Federal regulations require companies to make these lines as obvious
as possible and educate the public about where they are,'' said Kelly
Swan, a spokesman for Williams, the company that owns the pipe
supplying Manhattan. "But local laws indicate that we were allowed to
get rid of that particular sign, and after the recent publicity about
it, we did.''
Edward M. Stroz, a retired F.B.I. agent who runs his own consulting
firm on security issues, said many infrastructure companies found
themselves caught between old risks and new threats.
"The challenge is to make this infrastructure not so obvious that
it's almost inviting to terrorists,'' he said, "while also not
pulling so much information out of public reach that accidents
Natural gas arrives in New York City through six so-called city
gates, reached after traveling thousands of miles in pipes running
from deposits deep beneath southeastern Texas and Sable Island, off
the east coast of Nova Scotia. Here it enters a local grid of smaller
pipes owned by Consolidated Edison in Manhattan, the Bronx and
portions of Queens, and owned by Keyspan in the rest of the city. The
gas is used for heating, cooking, and increasingly for fuel in city
But natural gas is also at risk of sabotage.
"This tactic actually comes from our own playbook,'' said Thomas C.
Reed, the former secretary of the Air Force under President Gerald R.
Ford and the author of "At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the
Cold War.'' In 1982, the C.I.A. hacked into the software that
controlled Soviet natural gas pipelines, causing vital pumps,
turbines and valves to go haywire, he explained. The result, Mr. Reed
said, was the largest nonnuclear explosion and fire ever seen from
space and a major blow to Soviet sales of natural gas to Western
"The tactic was a stroke of genius,'' he said.
Jose Padilla, the former Chicago gang member who grew up in Brooklyn,
and who was accused of becoming an operative for Al Qaeda, intended
to use natural gas to blow up three tall buildings, the authorities
say. According to government documents, Mr. Padilla intended to rent
apartments in three high-rise buildings that used natural gas, fill
each apartment with fumes and detonate the three buildings
simultaneously using timers.
Security experts have repeatedly pointed to the natural gas pipeline
system as a dangerous Achilles' heel in the domestic infrastructure.
A report by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2002 said that city
gates and compressor stations, which keep the gas moving through the
pipelines, were most vulnerable. These critical nodes, the report
explained, are usually above ground and sometimes protected only by
chain-link fences and padlocks. If even one or two of these locations
were disabled in any major city, the report said, it could result in
a wide blackout since most new turbines being brought online in major
cities are powered by natural gas.
A 2002 report conducted by the National Academy of Sciences drew the
same conclusion, explaining that restoring power after an attack on
the natural gas system could take several weeks since spare parts for
many of the mechanisms, especially those at compressor stations, are
expensive, hard to find and often made only overseas. The report also
predicted logistical challenges: every nonelectronic pilot light in
the city would have to be manually relighted to avoid explosions.
"We take security of natural gas very seriously,'' a Con Ed
spokesman, Joe Petta, said. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Con Ed has
added fencing, cameras, and patrols around gas pipeline facilities,
he said. The utility has also begun inspecting pipeline valves
monthly, and four times a year it tests responses to city gate
failures, he said.
"None of that will help,'' said Mr. Young, standing about 30 feet and
a chain-link fence from one of the four central pipes that feed
natural gas to Manhattan. Even if certain facilities were patrolled
around the clock, he said, and most are not, the rest of the system
is still exposed.
"The fact that pipelines run largely underground reduces their
exposure to external threats,'' said a study concerning
infrastructure safety conducted by the Congressional Research Service
in 2002. But required markings alert emergency workers, homeowners
and terrorists to the location of pipelines.
This is today's central conundrum, Mr. Young said, adding that he
will continue posting on his Web site the results of his daily prowls
searching for weak spots. In the meantime, he added, "I imagine law
enforcement will probably be keeping an eye on me.''
In fact, Mr. Young got his first visit from F.B.I. agents several
weeks ago. But the issue was not all the nuclear reactor information
he has put in the public domain. Rather, they wanted to talk about
the natural gas pipeline maps, he said.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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