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Deadly Fertilizer Explosion

Investigation: Safety board experts deploy to chaotic Texas disaster site

by Jeff Johnson
April 18, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 16

Credit: AP
The massive explosion at West Fertilizer Co. caused widespread damage.
Photo shows the aftermath of a massive explosion at the fertilizer plant near Waco on Wednesday (4/17/13) night injured dozens of people and sent flames shooting into the night sky, leaving the factory a smoldering ruin following a blast that damaged buildings for blocks in every direction.
Credit: AP
The massive explosion at West Fertilizer Co. caused widespread damage.

Investigators from the federal Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) rushed to the scene of the April 17 deadly fertilizer facility fire and explosion that ripped apart the small Texas town of West, 15 miles north of Waco. They hope to pinpoint the cause of the West Fertilizer Co. accident that killed some dozen people, injured more than 150, and forced evacuations in the small town.

“The explosion caused huge off-site damage with many deaths and injuries,” says Daniel M. Horowitz, CSB managing director. “We have no choice but to throw everything at it. We have 12 investigators on-site as well as additional experts on fire origin, structural damage, and explosives.”

News videos of the explosion show a huge fireball and powerful explosion that some observers say felt like an earthquake—it registered 2.1 on the Richter scale. The plant was reported to store anhydrous ammonia for use in fertilizer, but that substance is highly unlikely to cause such an explosion, experts say.

A more likely culprit is ammonium nitrate, noted Daniel A. Crowl, a professor of chemical engineering and process safety at Michigan Technological University. “The type of explosion observed and the range of damage is much more consistent with an ammonium nitrate explosion,” he says, pointing to a long history of similar explosions.

However, when this story posted, it was unclear what chemicals were stored or used on-site and exactly what was done at the facility, Crowl stresses.

Filings with the state of Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency list the company as a storage facility that held up to 54,000 lb of anhydrous ammonia for sales to local farmers. In 2006, EPA fined the company $2,300 for failing to complete and file an adequate risk management plan, raising questions about what chemicals actually were being used on-site. Risk management plans require companies to list any hazardous chemicals they use and provide information on how they would respond to a facility accident.



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