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Shared Blame For West, Texas, Explosion

July 22, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 29

The explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in Texas was the result of ignorance as well as criminal negligence on the part of the facility owners (C&EN, April 22, page 8). Federal and state bureaucracies also bear some responsibility.

With the well-known explosive properties of ammonium nitrate and the history of similar accidents, safeguards beyond the paper regulations and infrequent inspections should have been in place. The Ordnance Corps of the Air Force, Army, and Navy recognize that, in the storage of munitions, there is always the potential for an explosion. The responsible position is to store munitions in a bunker, limit the amount of explosive material in each bunker, and specify the minimum distance separating bunkers. These requirements do not prevent all problems but limit the impact of accidents that might occur. Have such storage requirements been published for ammonium nitrate?

Since West Fertilizer seems to have been an unsophisticated operation, it’s unlikely that the company manufactured ammonium nitrate on-site. The Department of Homeland Security should have a list of all U.S. facilities that produce this potentially explosive chemical. Does DHS also have the authority to require manufacturers of ammonium nitrate to submit reports on the amounts of the chemical shipped to each customer? This would provide inspectors with an action list for the facilities that use ammonium nitrate.

Benton Leach
High Point, N.C.


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