April 21, 2013

Fertilizer plants go under the radar

Small fertilizer plants, like the one that exploded in Texas, often go unchecked in the regulatory system.

Jack Gillum and Ramit Plushnick-Masti / The Associated Press

There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems. Safety inspections were rare at the fertilizer company in West, Texas, that exploded and killed at least 14 people this week.

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Searchers in protective suits walk through the blast zone Thursday of the fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday night in West, Texas.

The Associated Press

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Displaced residents wait at a checkpoint Saturday as they wait to visit their homes.

The Associated Press

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RESIDENTS RETURN
TO ASSESS DAMAGE

WEST, Texas - After days of waiting, the first group of residents who fled their homes when a fertilizer plant exploded in a blinding fireball were allowed to go home Saturday to find out what remained.

The news came after a nervous day where officials told residents packed in a hotel waiting for updates about their neighborhood that leaking gas tanks were causing small fires near the blast site, keeping authorities from lifting blockades. But officials emphasized that the fires were contained, and said the town was safe.

"It is safe, safe and safe," City Council member Steve Vanek said emphatically at a news conference.

He said that a group of residents in a small area would be let back in later Saturday afternoon, but gave no indication about when all evacuated residents could return. Those being let back in would be subject to an evening curfew, and were warned to stay in their homes.

Residents with homes inside the zone were told to assemble at a designated location and show identification.

As the hour when the area was to be opened neared, residents and insurance agents formed a mile-long line of cars. Law enforcement checked the IDs of each person inside. Some who do not live in the designated area were turned away. Cars allowed in were tagged.

– The Associated Press

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 have found.

The small distributors -- there are as many of 1,150 in Texas alone -- are part of a regulatory system that focuses on large installations and industries, though many of the small plants contain enough agricultural chemicals to fuel a major explosion.

The plant in West had ammonium nitrate, the chemical used to build the bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. 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 any given time, or at the time of the explosion.

It was also authorized to handle up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a substance the Texas environmental agency considers flammable and potentially toxic.

"This type of facility is a minor source of air emissions," Ramiro Garcia, the head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Associated Press.

"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. And in Texas, the state's minimal approach to zoning puts plants just yards away from schools, houses and other populated areas, as was the case in West.

That plant received a special permit because it was less than 3,000 feet from a school. The damage from the blast destroyed an apartment complex, nursing home and houses in a four-block area.

State and federal investigators have not yet determined the cause of the disaster, which occurred Wednesday night after a fire broke out at the site after work hours. The explosion that followed could be heard miles away and was so powerful it registered as a small earthquake.

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.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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.

David Gray, an EPA spokesman in Dallas, said 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.

"This scenario is a plausible worse-case scenario as gaseous anhydrous ammonia can be lethal," Gray said.

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, he said, 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.

"We do not yet know what happened at this facility. The ongoing investigation will inform us on the plan's adequacy," Gray said.

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Additional Photos

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This photo taken on Thursday shows the remains of a nursing home, left, apartment complex, center, and fertilizer plant, right, destroyed by the explosion in West, Texas.

AP

  


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