updated 6/2/2007 9:11:27 PM ET 2007-06-03T01:11:27

A foiled plot to blow up a jet fuel pipeline under John F. Kennedy International Airport drew attention to what counterterrorism experts have warned could be a key target.

On Saturday, three men, one of them a former member of Guyana’s parliament, were arrested and one was being sought in Trinidad as part of a plan that intended to “cause greater destruction than in the Sept. 11 attacks” in a neighborhood surrounding the airport, according to an indictment.

It was the first threat against Buckeye Pipe Line Co., which operates petroleum conduits in 18 states, the company said. Its pumping facility in Linden, N.J., has 45 storage tanks pumps turbine fuel, gasoline, diesel and other fuel and heating oils through two 12-inch pipes to customers in New York City, including JFK and LaGuardia airports. The network totals 35 miles within the city alone.

Precautions kept close to the vest
Roy Haase, a spokesman at Buckeye Partners LP, in Breinigsville, Pa., declined to discuss details of the plot or the security measures of the company, which operates pipelines ranging more than 5,000 miles.

“There was a time when we would brag about our safety and security features, but we would not do that now, for fear we would be undermining them,” Haase said.

Buckeye works closely with federal Homeland Security officials, the FBI, New York fire and police and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the area’s three major airports, Haase said.

“We have been kept fully informed and apprised of this potential threat from the very beginning,” Haase said.

Authorities called the plot “chilling,” though it never got beyond the planning stages to kill several thousand people and destroy parts of New York’s borough of Queens, where the line runs underground.

Blast might do only limited damage
An explosion’s force would depend on the amount of fuel under pressure and likely would be “restricted” and not travel up and down the line., said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert and president of Accufacts Inc., an energy consulting firm that focuses on pipelines and tank farms.

“That doesn’t mean wackos out there can’t do damage and cause a fire, but those explosions and fires are going to be fairly restricted,” he said.

While pipelines have been the target of terrorism in Britain, Colombia and Turkey, records show only one other recent threat against a pipeline in the United States.

A report prepared for Congress last year said that federal authorities have warned of Al Qaida interest in pipelines as targets, especially the Alaska pipeline that handles 17 percent of U.S. domestic crude oil production.

“To date there have been no known Al Qaida attacks on TAPS or other U.S. pipelines, but operators remain alert,” it said.

In 2006, a Pennsylvania man was arrested for allegedly plotting to sabotage the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) and other petroleum facilities in New Jersey and Wyoming. There is no record that he was charged.

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