The April 17, 2013, explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, has resulted in catastrophic damage and loss for our Texas neighbors and their community. According to eye-witness reports, the plant first caught fire, then exploded as first responders approached the scene.
We don’t know yet what caused the blast, nor do we have a final count of those injured or killed.
What we do know is that the company appears to have downplayed the risks associated with plant activity. Numerous sources report that the plant had at least 50,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia onsite, yet the site’s operators told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and public safety officials that it posed no risk of fire or explosion. The worst case scenario, company officials said, would entail a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.
According to NBC News:
Last summer, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 for safety violations, including planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without adequate security and failing to properly label ammonia tanks. The company paid a reduced fine of $5,250 after agreeing to take corrective action. The fine was reported by several news organizations.
In 2006, the company was fined $2,300 by the EPA for not having filed a risk management plan, according to the EPA’s compliance database. The EPA said it had poor employee training records, failed to document hazards and didn’t have a written maintenance program. The EPA said the company corrected the deficiencies and filed an updated plan in 2011 – making no mention of the presence of ammonium nitrate – and was then in compliance with EPA regulations.
Also in 2006, the state Department of Environmental Quality found that the company was operating without a permit for its two 12,000-gallon tanks for anhydrous ammonia, which is stored as a liquid under high pressure. The state department hadn’t known about the tanks until a neighbor complained of a “very bad” smell of ammonia at night. The chemical is used on farms directly as a fertilizer, and can be combined with nitric acid to make ammonium nitrate fertilizer. No state permit for the tanks had been required when the plant was built in 1962, and it was grandfathered in until a 2004 change in state law required even those older plants to have permits.
State environmental officials received two complaints about the company. One, in 2002, said, “This place is in the northern part of town and every day during the grain harvest season there is a cloud of dust. Particles are falling like snow around town. People are afraid to complain, however this is effecting (sic) neighbors’ health with scratchy throats, cough and sneezing.” The other was in 2006, and led to the plant getting a permit for its anhydrous ammonia tanks: “Ammonia Smell very bad last night from fertilizer plant, lingered until after they went to bed,” it said.
Meanwhile, according to the Dallas Morning News, homes and schools were built within 3,000 feet of the facility. In fact, the nearest residence was 350 feet from the plant.
As investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality make their way toward West, Texas, to begin their work, we find ourselves asking some questions of our own, based on prior Slack & Davis case experience:
1) Holding large stockpiles of ammonium nitrate is a known fire risk with the capacity to detonate, as our state saw in the Texas City disaster of 1947. So how and why did the West Fertilizer Company plant withhold vital information about plant activity from government regulators?
2) Who was in charge of accuracy of plant safety reports?
3) Did the omission of information pave the path for nearby development, including a nursing home and an apartment complex?
More information about this horrific explosion will be revealed in coming days and weeks. As of this writing, the explosion is still being investigated as a crime scene. But if, in the end, it comes down to a company misrepresenting plant activity, leaving people in the West, Texas, community vulnerable, company officials should take full responsibility for the overwhelming injuries and loss.
Mike Davis contributed to this post.