Sifting for Clues at TX Fertilizer Plant

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 @ 03:04 PM gHale

Officials are still trying to figure out just what went wrong in the April 17 West, TX, fertilizer plant blast that killed at least 15 people and hurt more than 200.

Here’s what officials do know right now about the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant: The fertilizer plant had not undergone an inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985. Its owners did not tell the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) they were storing large quantities of the explosive fertilizer, as regulations require. And the most recent partial safety inspection of the facility in 2011 led to $5,250 in fines.

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Around 7:30 p.m. on April 17, a fire broke out at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant in West, TX, a town of 2800 people 75 miles south of Dallas. Twenty minutes later, there was a huge explosion, which shook houses 50 miles away and was so powerful that the United States Geological Survey registered it as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. It flattened homes within a five-block radius and destroyed a nursing home, an apartment complex, and a nearby middle school. The blast left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and the fire “burned with such intensity that railroad tracks were fused,” according to a report in The New York Times.

At least seven different state and federal agencies can regulate Texas fertilizer plants. OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), DHS, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service.

Some of the agencies don’t appear to have shared information before the blast.

Fertilizer plants that hold more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, for instance, must notify DHS. (Ammonium nitrate can end up used to make bombs. That was the main ingredient in the bomb Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.) The West plant held 270 tons of the chemical last year, according to a report it filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the plant didn’t tell DHS.

Carrie Williams, a Department of State Health Services spokeswoman, told the ProPublica web site there is no requirement for the agency to share that information — which also goes to local authorities — on to DHS.

While the exact cause of the explosion is unknown, a federal official told The New York Times that investigators believe the blast was the result of the ammonium nitrate. The blast crater is in the area of the plant where they stored the chemical.

The plant also filed a “worst-case release scenario” report with the EPA and local officials stating there was no risk of a fire or an explosion. The scenario described an anhydrous ammonia leak that wouldn’t hurt anyone.

As mentioned, OSHA did conduct a full safety inspection of the plant in 1985. “Since then, regulators from other agencies have been inside the plant, but they looked only at certain aspects of plant operations, such as whether the facility was abiding by labeling rules when packaging its fertilizer for sale,” ” the Huffington Post reported.

Since 2011, OSHA conducted inspections based in part on the level of risk that plants like the one in West reported to the EPA. Since the West plant had told the EPA there was no risk of a fire or an explosion, it wasn’t a priority. The plant also may have been exempt from some inspections as a small employer. An OSHA spokesman told ProPublica the agency would be investigating whether the plant had such an exemption.

The most recent federal safety inspection of the plant, in 2011, resulted in a $5,250 fine for failing to draft a safety plan for pressured canisters of anhydrous ammonia, among other infractions. (As mentioned, since the cause of the blast remains uncertain, there is no evidence that anhydrous ammonia played any role in the explosion.)

The devastation that occurred in the town begs the question were the homes, schools and businesses too close to the plant? The EPA and other federal agencies actually don’t regulate how close such plants can be to schools, nursing homes and population centers. In Texas, the decision goes to the local zoning authorities.

Ed Sykora, who owns a Ford dealership in West and spent a dozen years on the school board and the city council, told the Huffington Post he couldn’t recall the town discussing whether it was a good idea to build houses and the school so close to the plant, which has been there since 1962. “The land was available out there that way; they could get sewer and other stuff that way without building a bunch of new lines,” Sykora said. “There never was any thought about it. Maybe that was wrong.”

OSHA, the EPA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are all investigating the incident.

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