The tragic explosion last month at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, resulting in the loss of 15 lives, with 200 folks injured and more than $100 million in property losses, has brought into focus how important good regulation is. It could be put another way; this tragic event is the result of poor or inadequate regulation. There were no sprinklers, no firewalls, no water deluge systems, and almost no safety inspections at the plant. Unfortunately, this is not unusual. Small fertilizer plants nationwide fall under the purview of several government agencies, each with a specific concern and none required to coordinate with others on what they find.
The plant in West had ammonium nitrate, a chemical that can be used to make bombs, and that was not unusual. According to a document filed in 2012 with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the maximum amount of this “extremely hazardous substance” the plant could store in one container was 90 tons, and the most it could have on site was 270 tons. It is unknown how much was onsite at the time of the explosion.
The West plant was also authorized to handle up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a substance the Texas environmental agency considers flammable and potentially toxic. Ramiro Garcia, the head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Associated Press:
This type of facility is a minor source of air emissions. So the inspections are complaint driven. We usually look at more of the major facilities.
No federal agency determines how close a facility handling potentially dangerous substances can be to population centers, and in many states, including Texas, many of these decisions are left up to local zoning authorities. These plants can be very close to schools, houses and other populated areas. That was the case in West. The damage from the blast destroyed an apartment complex, nursing home and houses in a four-block area. The explosion that followed could be heard miles away and was so powerful it registered as a small earthquake. At press time state and federal investigators have not yet determined the cause of the disaster.
The West plant had what appears to be a rather bad safety record. Over the years, the fertilizer company was fined and cited for violations by federal and state agencies. Last summer, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration assessed a $10,000 fine against West Fertilizer for improperly labeling storage tanks and preparing to transfer chemicals without a security plan. The company paid $5,250 after reporting it had corrected the problems. Interestingly, the last time the plant was inspected by OSHA was in 1985.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also cited the plant for not having an up-to-date risk management plan. That problem was also resolved, and the company submitted a new plan in 2011. That plan, however, said the company did not believe it was storing or handling any flammable substances and didn’t list fire or an explosion as a danger. According to David Gray, an EPA spokesman in Dallas, the company’s plan identified a worst-case scenario as an accidental release of all 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which at room temperature is a gas. Gray had this to say:
This scenario is a plausible worse-case scenario as gaseous anhydrous ammonia can be lethal. We do not yet know what happened at this facility. The ongoing investigation will inform us on the plan’s adequacy.
The risk management plan also did not cite a possible explosion of ammonium nitrate, the solid granular fertilizer stored at the site. But that would not be unusual, according to Gray, because ammonium nitrate is not regulated under the Clean Air Act. The plant’s plan said there was no risk of fire or explosion and noted they had no sprinklers, water deluge or other safety mechanisms installed.
It was reported that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) also dealt with the company and issued a permit for handling anhydrous ammonia, which requires safety equipment the company told the EPA it didn’t have. But TCEQ acknowledged it may never have checked to confirm the equipment was there. The company’s last contact with regulation may have come as recently as April 5, when the Texas Office of the State Chemist, which focuses mostly on ensuring that commercial fertilizers are properly labeled and blended, inspected the plant. The inspectors found no problems, but they would not have checked for safety systems such as sprinklers. That office also provided the company with the required license to store and handle ammonia nitrate and renewed it in September after a summer inspection.
There have already been six civil lawsuits filed against West Fertilizer Co. and Adair Grain, Inc., its parent company, and there will certainly be more. In the meanwhile, a Texas community is hurting badly and trying very hard to put things back together.
Sources: Insurance Journal and Associated Press
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