The West Fertilizer Explosion: Regulatory oversight wasn’t the answer
Posted: Jun 22, 2013
By: Renee Witherspoon, MS, CSP, CIH, CHMM, South Plains Chapter President
Following the tragic fire and explosion on April 17, 2013 at the West Fertilizer Company, many questions are still being asked. Not only what caused the fire and explosion, but where were the federal, state or local regulators that provide oversight of facilities?
Because every community has a worst case scenario when it comes to hazardous materials, whether it travels through your community or being used and stored, we as health and safety professionals need to volunteer our expertise and work with our emergency management leaders to help identify potentially high hazard facilities, recognize hazardous conditions that may exist, and communicate solutions. This becomes important now that we know that government regulations can fail to provide the necessary oversight to prevent such events.
The Incident and Investigation
On April 17, 2013 an ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company killed 14 people (11 were firefighters responding to the scene) and injured more than 200. The explosion burned a school and destroyed or damaged buildings over a 35-block area. Residents in the area reported that the blast felt like an earthquake. The United States Geological Survey recorded the explosion as a 2.1 magnitude quake.
Among the many law enforcement agencies investigating the incident was the State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The other investigative organization that could reveal provide important findings is the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB). The CSB does not issue fines or penalties or seek civil or criminal sanctions, but rather identifies a “root cause” by reviewing planning and zones practices in relation to schools and other public facilities. They will also evaluate the effectiveness of regulatory coverage and review the emergency response activities during the fire.
Although law enforcement officials have determined that the investigation is officially “undetermined” with foul play still a possibility, the CSB stated that they had “no evidence pointing to an intentional criminal act”, and accused these agencies of potentially compromising or delaying their ability to complete the investigation. Controversy aside, the results of the CSB report are highly anticipated by health and safety professionals interested in what went wrong, and how to prevent future catastrophic events.
Explosion Hazards of Ammonium Nitrate
According to a December 1997 report from the EPA, Office of Solid Waste and Response, ammonium nitrate under normal conditions is very stable. It could however explode when exposed to strong shock or to high temperatures under confinement. Contaminants of organic materials in the ammonium nitrate also make a potential ammonium nitrate explosion more energetic. And with organic materials being stored onsite at an adjacent Chemical Storage Warehouse at the West site, this could have contributed to the severity of the explosion.
Regulations for Storage of Ammonium Nitrate – Federal Oversight
Ammonium nitrate is stable under normal conditions. Because it is so stable, it does not appear on hazardous chemical lists for many Federal agencies.
According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the West Fertilizer facility was not covered under the Chemical Facility Anti-terrorism Standards or CFATS. With CFATS, facilities have to conduct a Top Screen Assessment and identify all Chemicals of Interest (COI) at their facilities.
Why was West Fertilizer not covered by CFATS regulations? They did not file the paperwork. Each CFATS regulated entity is required to complete a Top-Screen Assessment Tool with the agency. This may have been an oversight by the agency, as West Fertilizer met the minimum criteria for filing. That minimum criteria or Screening Threshold Quantity (STQ) for storage of chemicals such as ammonium nitrate (subject of theft or diversion) is 400 pounds. According to the Texas Tier 2 Report for 2012, the West facility had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate and 55 tons of Anhydrous Ammonia. Filing of the Top Screen would have triggered a review of their terrorism risk, but may have not identified potential risks associate with unsafe storage of a hazardous chemicals.
The Risk Management Program (RMP) under the EPA regulations is applicable to facilities that handle, manufacture, use or store any of the toxic or flammable substances above the specified threshold quantities (40 CFR 68.130); however, ammonium nitrate – stable at normal conditions – is not on this list.
RMP covered facilities have to develop and implement a risk management plan that would prevent accidental releases of substances and mitigate the severity of incidents that might occur. West Fertilizer submitted a Risk Management Plan; however, they did not provide the correct Offsite Consequence Analysis (a key aspect of the plan) that could have lessened the severity.
OSHA has the 1910.119 standard for Process Safety Management or PSM. This standard contains a list of highly toxic and reactive hazardous chemicals which can present a potential for a catastrophic event at or above the threshold quantity. The purpose of this standard is to prevent or minimize those consequences, but their definition of “process” may have limited OSHA inspections of the facility.
- Process means any activity involving a highly hazardous chemical including any use, storage, manufacturing, handling, or the on-site movement of such chemicals, or combination of these activities. For purposes of this definition, any group of vessels which are interconnected and separate vessels which are located such that a highly hazardous chemical could be involved in a potential release shall be considered a single process. (1910.119(b))
If the hazardous chemical is on the list of “highly hazardous chemicals” but not in a “process” then this regulation would not apply. Ammonium nitrate is not on this “highly hazardous” list. However, anhydrous ammonia is on the list, and according to the Tier 2 report, was onsite at 55 tons or 110,000 pounds. The threshold quantity to trigger the PSM standard for anhydrous ammonia is 10,000 pounds. West certainly had a threshold quantity on site, but may have not been in a process with “interconnected and separate vessels”.
OSHA could have been onsite to review potential consequences when handling of the anhydrous ammonia if it were a “process”, and if a comprehensive wall-to-wall inspection was performed could have inspected the handling and storage of the ammonium nitrate. Could an OSHA compliance officer have recognized the hazard? Possibly, they do have well trained individuals certified in safety, but they have to have a programmed inspection, a worker complaint, serious accidents and fatalities to have them onsite.
According to records obtained by the Associated Press, the facility was last inspected by OSHA in 1985, prior to the PSM standard. West was cited for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia and fined $30.
Regulations for Storage of Ammonium Nitrate – State and Local Oversight
As for our Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), a citizen filed an official complaint with the TCEQ in 2006 regarding an “ammonia smell” from the facility. The TCEQ investigated and determined that the facility did not have the correct permits for dry fertilizer materials and for two (2)12,000 gallon anhydrous ammonia storage tanks. The TCEQ had visited several times but had not noted any concerns that may have triggered additional investigation into improper storage conditions.
The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) requires an annual hazardous chemical inventory called the Texas Tier 2 Report. This report contains detailed information on chemicals that meet or exceed specific reporting thresholds at any time during a calendar year. For generally hazardous chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate, that Threshold Planning Quantity (TPQ) is 10,000 pounds. Since the West facility had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on hand in 2012, a Tier 2 report was filed.
Because the goal of the Tier 2 report is to protect the public health and environment by providing current and accurate information about hazardous chemicals and their health effects, the agency did not conduct any inspections to ensure this facility was complying with the applicable regulations. Tier 2 information is required to be submitted to the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and the local fire department with jurisdiction.
Therefore one of the last regulatory authorities that had oversight was the local fire marshal, volunteer fire department and LEPC. And for a small Texas town of West where like most small Texas towns – where professionals wear “multiple hats”. There may not have been an inspection because volunteer firemen worked for West Fertilizer. This is just speculation, but it shows an opportunity for us as health and safety professionals to become involved.
Volunteer Your Expertise
Since these government agencies with their regulations did not prevent the tragedy in West, where does it leave similar communities with facilities having large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals in close proximity to schools, nursing homes and apartment complexes?
We have the training and expertise in health and safety, so it’s up to us to take up the banner, and be involved with emergency planning and preparedness in our communities.
Although there are many worthy community organization, let me recommend your Local Emergency Planning Committee. The LEPC’s role in community preparedness was initiated in the wake of the Bhopal disaster in India, where more than 2,000 people died because of an accident involving a release of a hazardous chemical.
As we wait on completion of the investigation and recommendations from the CSB, this is a call to action to be prepared, have a plan and be involved in the safety of your community. The government regulators are limited in their scope to find and recognize potential hazard in facilities with highly hazardous chemicals so it is up to us.
Government regulation is not the answer, we have the resources and the expertise to identify hazards and mitigate impacts. So this is my challenge – what can you do to promote health and safety in your community? We can make a difference!
A copy of the Tier 2 Report is below: