18 April 2013 22:51 [Source: ICIS news]
HOUSTON (ICIS)--Members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Response Team have been dispatched to the scene of a fertilizer explosion in the Texas town of West but are currently waiting for search and rescue operations to conclude before commencing their investigation, an ATF spokesperson said late Thursday.
A Wednesday evening a fire at a retail distribution facility resulted in an explosion that is estimated to have killed up to 15 people, including reports that the dead include three volunteer firemen responding to the initial blaze.
The tremendous blast, which registered a 2.1 magnitude on the US Geological Survey’s Richter Scale, also injured an estimated 160 people and caused extensive damage to buildings, homes and businesses in the town of 2,800 residents located about 75 miles south of Dallas.
According to Franceska Perot of the ATF, the response team, along with support staff from surrounding Texas cities, will number about 50 agents.
The agency at this time does not believe there was a criminal motive in the explosion but has responded to the event as part of the federal government’s typical response to events that involved significant loss of life and property, she said.
“We have activated the National Response Team here to the scene, but right now we are sort of at a standstill. We are here, but we are going to have to wait until the safety issues and the search and rescue that is underway is complete. The main issue is chemicals, but the safety people are here and are looking into it,” Perot said.
The accident occurred at West Fertilizer, which according to company information operates as a distributor and, in addition to mixing dry fertilizer, had storage capacities that contain anhydrous ammonia.
At this time, it is still unclear to authorities what caused the fire that lead eventually to the massive explosion, but officials have insisted that there is no indication that the incident was anything more than an industrial accident.
In addition to the ATF, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has sent an investigative team to the site to begin its investigation. According to CSB officials, this is their first investigation into a fertilizer plant explosion.
In terms of public safety, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has placed 12 monitors around the site to monitor air quality at distances ranging from a half-mile to a quarter-mile to assess any immediate health effects or future threats.
It has been feared that the blast released large amounts of toxic ammonia gas into the surrounding atmosphere, which can cause breathing difficulties or suffocation. At this time no impacts have been reported in the community.
TCEQ officials said the plant had not been inspected by the state since 2006 when a complaint of an ammonia smell was filed. The same year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the company $2,300 (€1,771) for failing to implement a risk management plan for the facility.
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