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:


The White House releases an Executive Order to Improve Chemical Facility Safety & Security

Posted: Apr 22, 2013

By:  Renee Witherspoon, MS, CSP, CIH, CHMM, South Plains Chapter President

In the light of recent tragic events in West and other industrial accidents, the White House today (8/1/13) issued an Executive Order to improve Chemical Safety and Security.

The purpose is to see if there are additional measures that can be taken by the executive departments and agencies with regulatory authority to further improve chemical safety.

The Executive Order establishes a Chemical Facility Safety & Security Working Group that will consist of leaders from the Departments of Justice, Agriculture and Transportation.  The group will also have representatives from the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Security Staff, Domestic Policy Council, Office of Science and Technology, and the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs.

Goals for this working group include:

  • Improving operational coordination with State, Local and Tribal Partners
    • Their goal is to provide first responders, State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) and Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) with ready access to key information to prevent, prepare for and respond to chemical incidents.  This goal also will review the feasibility of ATF and Department of Homeland Security, specifically data from the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), being shared with SERCs and LEPCs.
  • Enhancing Federal Coordination
    • The group will develop a pilot program involving the EPA, DOL and Homeland Security to validate best practices and to test innovative methods for Federal interagency collaboration regarding chemical facility safety and security.
    • The group will also be consulting the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to develop a Memorandum of Understand (MOU) regarding full disclosure of information between the EPA, ATF and OSHA.
  • Enhancing information Collection and Sharing
    • The group will develop and analyze the potential to improve information collection by and sharing between agencies.
  • Modernizing Policy, Regulation and Standards
    • Develop options for improved chemical facility safety and security that identifies improvements to existing risk management practices through agency programs.
    • Engaging key stakeholders to discuss the options and other means to improve chemical risk management.
    • Review proposals to improve the safe and secure storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate and identify ways in which ammonium nitrate safety and security can be enhanced under existing regulations.
    • Consider additional chemicals to be added to the CFATS chemicals of interest list.
    • Identify changes that need to be made in the retail and commercial grade exemptions in the PSM standard
    • Issue a Request for Information to identify any issues related to modernization of the PSM standard.
  • Identifying Best Practices
    • Identify and share best practices to reduce safety and security risks in the production and storage of potentially harmful chemicals.

With any type of emergency, communication and information is always key to good decision-making.  Collection and sharing of information with key industry stakeholders and LEPCs will hopefully improve safety and prevent tragedies like the event in West from happening again.

A link to this Executive Order is below:


Respiratory Protection: Does Your Program Meet the OSHA Standard?

Posted: Mar 22, 2013

By:  Renee Witherspoon, CSP, CIH, CHMM, South Plains Chapter President

Respirators are an important part of personal protective equipment (PPE).  Anyone that has changed out a chlorine cylinder or worked in a confined space is familiar with the use of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).  If we are familiar with the use of an SCBA or use one on a regular basis, then it is important for us to also be familiar with the OSHA regulations and determine if our respiratory protection program meets this minimum standard.

Are Municipalities required to have an OSHA Program for Respiratory Protection?

Although municipalities are not regulated by OSHA, they are regulated by State governments.  Many times the State regulations will refer or adopt by reference a federal regulation or standard.  This is what the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has done with the OSHA regulations.  In Public Water Supply, according to Title 30, Chapter 290.42 (e)(4)(A) “When chlorine gas is used, a full-face self-contained breathing apparatus or supplied air respirator that meets Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards…” shall be used.   There is broader scope in Chapter 290.42 (k)(i) in that, “Safety equipment for all chemicals used in water treatment shall meet applicable standards established by the OSHA or Texas Hazard Communication Act…”

Other employers that are not a State or local government must comply with all applicable OSHA standards and keep their workplaces free of recognized hazards.

Since OSHA standards are the minimum standard, all facilities should follow these regulations when developing and implementing their health and safety programs.

Goal of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard

The goal of OSHA’s respiratory protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134) is to control occupational disease caused by breathing air contaminated with harmful dusts, fogs, fumes, mists, gases, smokes, sprays or vapors.  This also includes air in confined space that may have an oxygen deficient atmosphere Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH).  According to the standard, when engineering controls or ventilation is not feasible to reduce the hazard, then appropriate respiratory protection can be used.

The Written Program

A written respiratory protection program is required when the employer requires the use of respirators.  The written program should site specific and include all prescribed program elements.  The program should also be administered by a trained person knowledgeable in the OSHA standard.  The following are the OSHA program elements:

  1. Procedures for selecting respirators for use;
  2. Medical evaluations of employees required to use respirators;
  3. Fit testing procedures for tight-fitting respirators;
  4. Procedures for proper use of respirators in routine and reasonably foreseeable emergency;
  5. Procedures and schedules for cleaning, disinfecting, storing, inspecting, repairing, discarding, and otherwise maintaining respirators;
  6. Procedures to ensure adequate air quality, quantity, and flow of breathing air for atmosphere-supplying respirators;
  7. Training of employees in the respiratory hazards to which they are potentially exposed during routine and emergency situations;
  8. Training of employees in the proper use of respirators, and
  9. Procedures for regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the program.

Assessment and Selection

OSHA requires employers to assess the respiratory hazard(s) in their workplace.   This assessment should identify any hazardous airborne contaminant(s) the employee may inhale during their work assignment and then make a reasonable estimate of that person’s exposure so that the appropriate respirator can be selected.

To complete an assessment the program administrator would review the chemical list or MSDS’s (or safety data sheets) and evaluate how each of the chemicals are handled to determine if a respiratory hazard exists.  Some safety data sheets also include recommendations for selection of the correct respiratory protection.

Once the assessment is completed for each potential respiratory hazard, then the information is documented in the written program with the job task, the chemical contaminant, estimated exposure and type of respirator selected.   For confined spaces where oxygen deficient atmospheres may be present, the assessment is simple:  suspected IDLH environment = SCBA use.

Medical Evaluations

Since use of a respirator can place a physiological burden on an person’s cardiac and pulmonary function, a medical evaluation is required by the OSHA standard to determine the his or her ability to use a respirator.  A medical evaluation consists of completion of a medical questionnaire (found in Appendix C of the standard) or by having a medical evaluation by a physician or other licensed healthcare professional (PLHCP).

Either the questionnaire or the medical evaluation is required for all respirator users, except those who voluntarily use dust masks and escape-only respirators.  If the medical questionnaire is used to evaluate the fitness of respirator use, then those documents must be kept confidential, and not in a file with other personnel records.  There is no cost to the employee for the medical evaluation.

Fit Testing

Fit testing is required for all employees using tight-fitting respirators such as an self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).   However, it is not required for voluntary use of respiratory protection, such as dust masks, or for escape-only respirators.

OSHA allows two types of fit testing:

  1. Quantitative Fit Test (QNFT) – An instrument is used that will numerically measure the amount of leakage into the respirator.  Then a calculation is made to determine a fit factor, to determine how well the respirator will protect the use.
  2. Qualitative Fit Test (QLFT) – A “pass/fail” test that assess the adequacy of the respirator fit by relying on the individual’s response to the test agent, typically banana oil, sodium saccharine or irritant smoke.

While Quantitative Fit Testing is more accurate and provides a greater degree of protection, Qualitative Fit Testing is more economical.  City Fire Departments are a good resource for fit testing, as they have trained personnel and equipment that may be able to assist with this portion of the OSHA requirement at no cost.

Facial Hair, Corrective Glasses and Respirator Use

As part of the written program OSHA requires employers to establish and implement procedures for the proper use of respirators.  These requirements prohibit conditions that may affect the facepiece seal of the respirator which includes facial hair.  The OSHA standard states that they, “do not permit respirators with tight-fitting facepieces to be worn by employees who have facial hair…or any condition that interferes with the face-to-facepiece seal or valve function.” If personnel have beards or any facial hair that interferes with the face seal of the respirator, that person cannot be fit tested and therefore should not be wearing a tight-fitting respirator.

For employees with corrective glasses, goggles or other PPE, OSHA requires that “such equipment is worn in a manner that does not interfere with the seal of the facepiece to the face of the user.”  For those that wear corrective glasses, and have to wear a full-face respirator, request a spectacle kit.

Maintenance and Care of Respirators

Respirators should be cleaned and disinfected to keep them in a sanitary condition. They should also be stored accordingly to prevent damage and contamination.

  • Respirators issued for the exclusive use of an employee should be cleaned and disinfected as needed to maintain it in a sanitary condition;
  • Respirators issued to more than one employee should be cleaned and disinfected before being worn by other individual;
  • Respirators maintained for emergency use should be cleaned and disinfected after each use.


All respirators should be regularly inspected before each use and during cleaning.  If SCBA’s are maintained for emergency use, the requirement is for monthly inspections.  Cylinders should be maintained in a fully charged state and should be recharged when the pressure falls to 90% of the manufacturer’s recommended pressure level.  All SCBA inspections should include a check of the regulator and warning devices.

For emergency use respirators, OSHA also requires a “certification” that the respirator was inspected.  Typically this is a checklist that is stored with the respirator.  The checklist should include the name (or signature) of the person who made the inspection, the findings, any required remedial action, and a serial number or other means of identifying the respirator.

Training and Information

Training, an OSHA requirement, should be conducted in a manner that is understandable to the employee and should occur prior to use of the respirator.  The training program should include the following elements:

  • Why the respirator is necessary and how improper fit, usage, or maintenance can compromise the protective effect of the respirator;
  • What the limitations and capabilities are;
  • How to use the respirator effectively in emergency situations, including situations in which the respirator malfunctions;
  • How to inspect, put on and remove, use, and check the seals of the respirator;
  • What the procedures are for maintenance and storage of the respirator;
  • How to recognize medical signs and symptoms that may limit or prevent the effective use of the respirator.


It is important to maintain all of our PPE in good condition especially our respirators.  We depend on these to prevent possible respiratory disease and to protect us in confined spaces.  If we are required to use a respirator in our work assignments or during emergencies, OSHA requires that we have a medical evaluation, fit testing and training.  We should also feel confident that the correct respirator was selected for that task.  Although most facilities have a respiratory protection program, they may not have all of the required OSHA components.  The challenge is for the program administrator.  He or she is tasked with the evaluation and implementation of the program and determining if any changes are needed.  Recommendations from the program administrator should be implemented so that all employees can continue to remain safe when using their respirators.


  • OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134
  • OSHA’s Compliance Directive on Respiratory Protection, CPL 2-0.120

For more information on respiratory protection there are some excellent resources available on the OSHA website in addition to the standard. has general guidelines, training videos and information in Spanish.   OSHA also has an eTool that provides instruction on properly selecting a respirator and developing a change out schedule for gas/vapor cartridges at   A good source for general chemical exposure information is the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards at This resource also provides respirator recommendations for different concentrations.

If you would like a generic respiratory protection program that contains all of the required OSHA elements, respirator check lists, SCBA inspection checklist and sample assessments, send me am email at