TX Plant Stored Too Much Fertilizer

Sunday, April 21, 2013 @ 07:04 PM gHale


The fertilizer plant that exploded and wiped out a part of a Texas town Wednesday killing at least 14 people, had been storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate which would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), records show.

Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate, which can also be used in bomb making, unaware of any danger there.

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Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which it did not share with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.

A U.S. congressman and several safety experts called into question on Friday whether incomplete disclosure or regulatory gridlock may have contributed to the disaster.

“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”

Company officials did not return repeated calls seeking comment on its handling of chemicals and reporting practices. Late on Friday, plant owner Donald Adair released a general statement expressing sorrow over the incident but saying West Fertilizer would have little further comment while it cooperated with investigators to try to determine what happened.

“This tragedy will continue to hurt deeply for generations to come,” Adair said.

Failure to report significant volumes of hazardous chemicals at a site can lead the DHS to fine or shut down fertilizer operations, a person familiar with the agency’s monitoring regime said. Though the DHS has the authority to carry out spot inspections at facilities, it has a small budget for that and only a “small number” of field auditors, the person said.

Firms are responsible for self reporting the volumes of ammonium nitrate and other volatile chemicals they hold to the DHS, which then helps measure plant risks and devise security and safety plans based on them.

Since the agency never received any top-screen report from West Fertilizer, the facility was not regulated or monitored by the DHS under its CFAT standards, largely designed to prevent sabotage of sites and to keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.

The DHS focuses “specifically on enhancing security to reduce the risk of terrorism at certain high-risk chemical facilities,” said agency spokesman Peter Boogaard. “The West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, Texas is not currently regulated under the CFATS program.”

The West Fertilizer facility was subject to other reporting, permitting and safety programs, spread across at least seven state and federal agencies, a patchwork of regulation that critics say makes it difficult to ensure thorough oversight.

An expert in chemical safety standards said the two major federal government programs that are supposed to ensure chemical safety in industry — led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — do not regulate the handling or storage of ammonium nitrate. That task falls largely to the DHS and the local and state agencies that oversee emergency planning and response.

More than 4,000 sites nationwide are subject to the DHS program.

“This shows that the enforcement routine has to be more robust, on local, state and federal levels,” said Sam Mannan, director of process safety center at Texas A&M University. “If information is not shared with agencies, which appears to have happened here, then the regulations won’t work.”

Chemical safety experts and local officials suspect this week’s blast happened when ammonium nitrate was set ablaze. Authorities suspect the disaster was an industrial accident, but haven’t ruled out other possibilities.

The fertilizer is considered safe when stored properly, but can explode at high temperatures and when it reacts with other substances.



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