A fourth suspect in an alleged plot to bomb fuel facilities at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York surrendered to authorities Tuesday in Trinidad.
Law enforcement officials say the men accused of planning to attack the airport thought they could create a fire in part of a pipeline carrying jet fuel for airliners that would possibly blow up the entire pipeline system.
Experts say there are safeguards in place to prevent that domino effect, but even taking out a portion of the pipeline would shut down the airport — the rest of the system would also have to be shut down.
When the case was first announced this past weekend in New York, U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf spoke of "unfathomable death and destruction."
"The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable," Mauskopf said.
According to the indictment, the suspects anticipated that some New York neighborhoods would explode if they bombed an underground pipeline feeding airport fuel tanks. But security experts say concerns about the impact of a pipeline explosion have been overblown.
Half a million miles of underground pipelines carry oil and gas throughout the United States. Most are in isolated areas, but some are not — like the one that carries jet fuel from Linden, N.J., through densely populated Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y., to a tank farm at JFK.
But Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert with Accufacts, an energy consulting firm, says fears that an explosion at one end of the pipeline would set off explosions throughout the underground network are unrealistic.
"It's just not going to happen," Kuprewicz said. "You can have what we call a potential impact zone at the release site, but the flame front will not go up or down the pipeline."
One reason is that the fuel in the pipelines is not highly combustible. It needs oxygen to burn and there are shut-off valves to stop the flow in an emergency.
Still, Kuprewicz says he doesn't want to downplay the potential damage. In fact, there have been serious pipeline accidents, including one in Carlsbad New Mexico that killed 12 campers in 2000. But he says an explosion, even in the JFK fuel tanks, would be fairly contained.
The JFK pipeline is operated by the Pennsylvania-based Buckeye Pipeline company, which handles about 5,400 miles of pipeline overall. Spokesman Roy Haase says the company uses aerial patrols and control rooms to monitor the system around the clock.
And he says the company works closely with government security officials.
"Our safety and our security features are quite well known to these people," Haase said. "And we're in constant communications with them, state, local, federal authorities. We even go as far as to meet with local fire and police departments on a regular basis."
Kuprewicz says that, for the most part, pipelines can be quickly repaired. His biggest concern is that people will overreact to the latest plot.
"If the reaction on national security is to not tell people where pipelines are in their neighborhood, that's probably a step backwards."
Public awareness is one of the best ways to protect pipelines, Kuprewicz says, because people are more likely to report anything suspicious if they know where to look.