Who is stealing propane tanks?

Lock blocks valve, provides another method to secure individual tanks. Since June of last year, there have been at least a dozen incidents of theft of retail propane cylinders from storage cages at convenience stores, gas stations and supplier depots.

From Orange County, Calif., to Augusta, Ga., law enforcement is puzzled about the thefts. Typical is the response from California, where The Orange County Register reports that police are “mystified as to why 81 tanks have been stolen from five locations.”

Across the country, the Guntersville, Ala., police chief, faced with a similar situation, also seems perplexed. In the past, these tanks have been stolen for scrap or for use in illegal methamphetamine production, but he wonders if lately there could be a more sinister motive: “Our biggest concern would be that somebody has a greater plan of sabotage or possibly a terroristic idea.”

Consider that the recent failed car bomb in Times Square included three propane tanks along with a detonator and fertilizer. Terrorists in Europe have also tried to use propane as an explosive. Illegally obtained propane tanks may indeed be materials for a terrorist.

Security responses
Whatever the primary cause of these thefts, from simple small-time crime to fueling a bomb, the industry ought to be developing some additional security responses to prevent these thefts, from stronger storage cages to more cameras. Storing tanks inside a facility is dangerous, and may even be against local ordinances. A bigger lock on the cage may just lead the thief to cut the mesh.

Propane distributors and retailers need a method to secure an individual tank. Even if the problem is only simple theft, the tanks are reportedly valued at $50, and a black market in stolen tanks is obviously unacceptable. The other two possibilities, use in the meth industry or possible terrorism, have much larger community implications and demand stronger security steps.

Lock it up
The best solution to meet each challenge, and in particular the terrorist challenge, is to secure each tank with a valve lock.

A quick Internet search for “propane valve locks” will reveal two kinds of propane tank locks – one a consumer-oriented product with shackle that clamps over the valve handle and a second industry-oriented product that actually blocks the outlet valve.

This product, called a “POLock,” is available with a registered key code and directly inserts into the valve. If a thief steals a tank, even to use it to fuel a bomb, there is no way to access the propane without destroying the tank. Even a suicide bomber needs to connect and arm an explosive device safely before bringing it to a destination. Active support for these kinds of locks would impact the theft epidemic, eliminate a fuel source of the illegal meth industry and, most importantly, protect a readily available explosive source from terrorists.

Certified service
Of course, there is a cost for propane valve locks, but there is also a cost for stolen tanks.

A propane valve lock also ensures that a tank has been properly prepared and filled, “certified” by the operator, who then removes the lock when the tank is delivered to a customer. Such enhanced certified service could surely justify an increased price to eventually offset the price of a lock.

If the industry proactively promotes these types of locks, it may prevent government intervention if propane continues to be a popular fuel for terrorists.

Vulnerable propane tanks are a potential industry problem that can be most effectively addressed proactively if distributors and retailers develop a program to secure individual tanks before these thefts become a bigger problem.

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