A federal investigation into the fatal fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas points to shortcomings in existing regulations, standards and guidance. Does this case show there is a real need for more safety regulation?
The April 17, 2013, explosion killed 14 people, injured 226 and caused widespread community damage including the destruction of many buildings in the area.
The explosion resulted from an intense fire in a wooden warehouse building that led to the detonation of about 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside wooden bins.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) recently released preliminary results of its investigation. The agency’s work continues as it attempts to find whether additional factors contributed to the explosion.
The CSB says the building lacked a sprinkler system or any other type of system to automatically detect or suppress fire.
It was only 20 minutes from the first report of the fire in the building until the explosion.
The fire “resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it,” said CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso.
“The CSB found at all levels of government a failure to adopt codes to keep populated areas away from hazardous facilities,” said CSB Supervisory Investigator Johnnie Banks.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as the CSB’s criticism of federal, state and local government to regulate this type of chemical facility. Some material from the CSB’s preliminary report:
- “The federal OSHA standard for “Explosives and Blasting Agents” (29 CFR 1910.109) does have requirements for ammonium nitrate fertilizer … however, the OSHA standard does not prohibit wooden bins or wooden construction, and does not require sprinklers unless more than 2500 tons of AN is present.”
- “OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard … is designed to prevent catastrophic workplace incidents involving highly hazardous chemicals … Ammonium nitrate is not, however, one of the listed chemicals that triggers PSM coverage.”
- “The EPA’s Risk Management Program rule … is designed to prevent catastrophic offsite and environmental damage from extremely hazardous substances … Once again, however, ammonium nitrate is not one of the listed chemicals that triggers RMP coverage.”
- “OSHA considered adding ammonium nitrate along with other highly reactive chemicals to its list of PSM-covered substances in the late 1990s. However, this proposal was shelved in 2001.”
- “No federal, state, or local standards have been identified that restrict the siting of ammonium nitrate storage facilities in the vicinity of homes, schools, businesses, and health care facilities.”
- “While U.S. standards for ammonium nitrate have apparently remained static for decades, other countries have more rigorous standards covering both storage and siting of nearby buildings.”
- “The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has regulations for ammonium nitrate used as an explosive but these do not apply to ammonium nitrate used as fertilizer.”
No one needs to be told about the debate in Washington, DC, and elsewhere about government regulations.
But, given this report, would you agree that more regulation is needed regarding the storage of ammonium nitrate? Let us know what you think in the comments.