A preliminary report by a federal investigatory agency says failures by the West Fertilizer Co., federal regulators, insurance carriers, emergency responders and local officials led to the April 17, 2013 explosion that killed 12 responders and 3 members of the public.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) says exactly how the fire that preceded the explosion by 20 minutes started is still unknown. Three possible scenarios remain under investigation:
- faulty electrical wiring
- short circuit in an electrical golf cart, or
- intentional act of arson.
Whichever way the fire started, the CSB says several factors contributed to its spread and the subsequent explosion:
- Storage of combustible materials near the fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) pile contributed to the progression and intensity of the fire and likely resulted in detonation
- The facility didn’t have a fire detection system to alert emergency responders or an automatic sprinkler system to extinguish the fire at an earlier stage of the incident, and
- Contamination from soot, molten asphalt and molten polyvinyl chloride from an overhead conveyor produced an explosive mixture of combustibles and the FGAN.
But the shortcomings don’t stop with West Fertilizer. Among its findings regarding regulatory agencies:
- “OSHA efforts to oversee facilities that store and handle FGAN fell short at the time of the incident.”
- OSHA inadvertently omitted ammonium nitrate (AN) from the List of Highly Hazardous Chemicals in its Process Safety Management (PSM) standard, even though AN has reactive characteristics that would have triggered its inclusion.
- AN isn’t on the EPA’s Risk Management Program list of chemicals, so West Fertilizer wasn’t required to take safety measures for FGAN similar to those for ammonia.
The CSB said emergency responders needed to be better prepared:
- The West Volunteer Fire Department didn’t conduct pre-incident planning or response training at the West Fertilizer facility to address FGAN-related incidents because it wasn’t required.
- Federal and Texas manuals used for hazardous materials training and certification of firefighters placed little emphasis on emergency response to FGAN storage sites.
- Lessons learned from previous FGAN fires and explosions weren’t shared with volunteer fire departments, including the one in West, TX.
Even local city planners share some of the blame, according to the CSB, which noted that three of the deaths were members of the public. When the West plant was first built, it was surrounded by open fields. As the city of West developed over the years, it expanded toward the facility. As a result, a nursing home (where two of the deaths occurred) and schools were located close to the plant. The West High School had to be demolished due to damage from the explosion. Who knows what the consequences would have been if the explosion had happened earlier in the day instead of at 7:51 p.m.
The CSB report is 267 pages long. Other details in the report include:
- Local hospitals treated 260 people, many of whom required admission.
- The blast caused widespread damage to more than 150 buildings other than West Fertilizer structures.
- West Fertilizer filed for bankruptcy.
- Total insurance losses from the explosion are estimated to be around $230 million. West Fertilizer’s insurance policy was for just $1 million.
- In 2010, West Fertilizer’s previous insurer dropped its coverage of the company because West failed “to address safety concerns identified in loss control surveys.”
- The CSB recommends OSHA start a Regional Emphasis Program for its Explosives and Blasting Agent standard in appropriate regions where FGAN facilities similar to the West facility are prevalent.
- OSHA should either add FGAN to its PSM standard or revise its Explosives and Blasting Agents standard to make it clear that it applies to facilities that store bulk quantities of FGAN.
CSB’s investigation is ongoing.