Texas Explosion Facts Emerge | April 29, 2013 Issue - Vol. 91 Issue 17 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 91 Issue 17 | p. 5 | News of The Week
Issue Date: April 29, 2013 | Web Date: April 26, 2013

Texas Explosion Facts Emerge

Investigation: Ammonium nitrate, lack of regulatory oversight are likely causes of West, Texas, tragedy
Department: Government & Policy
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: ammonium nitrate, anhydrous ammonia, fertilizer, DHS, CFATS
The day after the West Fertilizer facility explosion, investigators search for clues among the remains.
Credit: Adrees Latif/Reuters/Newscom
This is a photo of the remains after a fertilizer explosion in Texas in April.
The day after the West Fertilizer facility explosion, investigators search for clues among the remains.
Credit: Adrees Latif/Reuters/Newscom

Facts have slowly emerged over the past week about the devastating accident at West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. As federal and state investigators examined the scene, the exact cause remained unclear, as did the role proper regulatory oversight might have played in avoiding the tragedy.

At least 15 people, mostly firefighters, lost their lives, and 200 residents were injured in a fire and massive explosion that completely destroyed the facility on April 17. According to state and federal records, the retail facility stored some 270 tons of ammonium nitrate and 54,000 lb of anhydrous ammonia for sale to local farmers. Ammonium nitrate is an explosive sometimes used by terrorists and the source of numerous industrial accidents and thousands of deaths worldwide.

On the night of the accident, the facility caught fire. Some dozen firefighters and emergency responders fought unsuccessfully to control the fire. Conditions worsened and officials rushed to evacuate the area, which included a school, a nursing home, and private residences. The facility exploded before the evacuation was complete, leveling the surrounding area and leaving a 93-foot-wide crater, according to a reporter who gained access to the site.

The facility appeared not to segregate ammonium nitrate, nor did it have automatic sprinkler systems, structural fire barricades, or other mechanisms to limit fires. Whether first responders were aware of what was in the warehouse and its potential for explosion is unknown.

Like some 6,500 other U.S. fertilizer distributors, the facility received ammonium nitrate in the form of prills—spherical particles. Even in prill form, ammonium nitrate readily burns. Once the chemical reaches a critical temperature, it explodes.

Use of ammonium nitrate in the U.S. is declining. It makes up just 2% of directly applied nitrogen products, fertilizer industry representatives say. According to the Department of Agriculture, ammonium nitrate use has dropped by half since 2005. Still, 719,000 tons was applied in 2010, the last year for which figures are available.

Ammonium nitrate storage and use are controlled by state and federal regulations. However, it appears that West Fertilizer’s reports to regulators held conflicting information about what materials and quantities were stored, so this small retail distribution facility may not have triggered regulators’ notice.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has clear authority over this facility. Under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program, fertilizer plants and retail facilities must notify DHS when they annually produce, store, or distribute 400 lb or more of ammonium nitrate and 10,000 lb or more of anhydrous ammonia. The West facility exceeded both thresholds, but it had never filed a report with DHS.

“Although it’s still early, it seems this operator was willfully off the grid,” says Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. “We understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up,” Thompson says.

The West Fertilizer facility is not currently regulated under CFATS, acknowledged DHS spokesman Scott McConnell, and is not among the 4,380 high-risk facilities covered nationwide. DHS is now looking into whether West Fertilizer should have submitted a questionnaire that the department requires to determine whether a facility poses a high risk. DHS has the authority to fine or shut down a facility that fails to report holding large volumes of hazardous chemicals.

Thompson asserts that DHS’s failure to oversee the Texas plant calls into question the fundamentals of CFATS: “I strongly believe that had DHS personnel worked with the plant owners to identify vulnerabilities and put safeguards in place, as DHS does at thousands of other plants, the loss of life and destruction could have been far less.”

Chemical & Engineering News
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Copyright © American Chemical Society
Tony (April 26, 2013 2:22 PM)
As a highly respected chemical news resource, I find it slightly upsetting that you would take the time to describe ammonium nitrate simply as "an explosive sometimes used by terrorists", and not indicate that it is primarily a fertilizer. Hinting that it's first and only purpose is destruction is fear-mongering and shock journalism at best. Shame on you.
Mark Walker (May 3, 2013 1:37 PM)
I was similarly shocked by that aspect of the article.
bobby (April 28, 2013 8:27 PM)
this was scary. Very, very scary.
Kathy L. Sexton (April 29, 2013 8:28 PM)
You write, "Whether first responders were aware of what was in the warehouse and its potential for explosion is unknown." Pretty clear to me they were not aware of the dangers of exploding Ammonium Nitrate, seeing how they rushed in to put out the fire. If the owner of the plant had of reported the possession of 270 tons of Ammonium Nitrate, then the regulatory laws would have mandated that the local fire departments to be so advised of the dangers....and those fire fighting heroes would not be dead. The plant owner put his profits over the public good.
john Marks (May 1, 2013 5:40 AM)
Shocking story. I hope this accident is a wake-up call to all American fertilizer suppliers.
david rolf (May 1, 2013 7:57 PM)
This unfortunate event seems to be one more example of the ineffectiveness of the DHS to do anything of significant value for the population it is supposed to serve. The same could be said of OSHA or other reg bodies whose job it was to inspect and mitigate these risks.

Without effective regulation, the next best control would be an effective deterrent by criminal and economic liability and penalties. Has anyone or any govt initiated proceedings against the owner and manager of the facility? If they knew they had real liability, they would be more careful. They made money on these illegal practices... what if they were selling crack?
Arthur Slesinger (May 3, 2013 10:24 PM)
Two thoughts, it is the fire department's responsibility to visit the major sites in its jurisdiction. Had they simply showed up once, the risk would have been very obvious. Second, don't blame OSHA for poor enforcement, the DOL budget for OSHA is shamefully small, Congress makes sure their impotent by withholding any thing near a reasonable annual budget.
Mark Walker (May 3, 2013 2:17 PM)
Just ask your favorite search engine about ammonium nitrate disasters. Just this subset (http://www.wikidoc.org/index.php/Ammonium_nitrate_disasters) is instructive.

So how is it that DHS didn't follow the money trail?

Starting with U.S. manufacturers and importing distributors and working thru their shipping manifests to find destinations would straightforwardly identify likely large holders of ammonium nitrate. Then recursively check those destinations and their shippping records. Repeat until only uninteresting shipments remain.

If 400 lbs. is the limit, then any entity which was shipped more than 400 lbs., had enough onsite at that point to require reporting to DHS. If there is no report, then queue a DHS inspection.

This process would not identify all storage locations of concern because the material can accumulate over time (see events referenced above), but it seems likely the West facility received shipments larger than 400 lbs.

As to the DHS inspection manpower shortage, much of the activitiy I suggest could occur at the manufacturer/shipper/storage sites. In this day of electronic record keeping, the problem is likely smaller than it seems.
Mark Walker (May 3, 2013 2:33 PM)
I find it interesting that TX was the site of the largest AN disaster, and AN protocol/hygiene (http://www.rimworld.com/nassarocketry/msds/ammonium_nitrate_msds.pdf) isn't well followed in TX.
In the Texas City incident they knew they weren't loading in Houston because Houston refused such shipping of AN. That was a clue...
How can anyone involved with AN not have the '47 blast in Texas City occasionally haunt their thoughts?
Wolfgang Sauer (May 9, 2013 6:06 AM)
What I find missing in the story itself and C&EN's report is the historical perspective: have we absolutely nothing learned from Oppau (1921), Texas City (1947), Brest (1947), Toulouse (2001) and Ryongchon (2004), to name just the biggest AN-related accidents. Do they really have to happen again, and again, and again ??

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