Ammonium nitrate railcar may be factor in Texas fertilizer blast

22 April 2013 23:05  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--As the question of how the fire at the fertilizer outlet in the town of West created a massive explosion resulting deaths, numerous injuries and unprecedented destruction continues to linger, officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on Monday offered a theory that centers around the presence of ammonium nitrate.

The accident may be the result of the fire spreading from the initial facility site to the adjacent railroad line, where authorities believe there was a hopper car loaded with unknown amounts of ammonia nitrate, said TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw, who was speaking at a news conference.

There is evidence of a damaged rail car and that the tracks were impacted from the explosion.

Since the tremendous blast occurred on 17 April, there has been much discussion about the fact that West Fertilizer had storages of anhydrous ammonia on their property, but Shaw said that he has not seen any previous examples where an ammonia tank had exploded so violently.

“I would submit to you that the ammonia tank that’s been a lot of people’s focus was likely not what we saw exploding there. It’s more likely, as I have done some analysis of that, it’s likely possible a railcar with ammonium nitrate in it,” said Shaw.

“It appears it was not the anhydrous ammonia tanks and it appears to be in an area where they might be unloading those materials. And those materials have been known to be explosive,” Shaw said.

He said that while there has been finger pointing as to who is to blame and for a perceived lack of regulatory oversight, it is not the responsibility of the state’s environmental agency. He further added that all the agencies involved are hoping to learn lessons from the explosion to prevent such a disaster from ever occurring again.

TCEQ officials have said they inspected the facility seven times since 2002 with the most recent coming in 2007 and that its visits were not only routine reviews but also based on some public complaints. The agency has said the facility, which was 51 years old, had been grandfathered from certain regulations up until 2004. However, in 2006 it was required to apply for and received air pollution permits.

The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration levied a $10,000 (€7,600) fine last summer against West Fertilizer for improperly labelling storage tanks and preparing to transfer chemicals without a security plan. The violation was settled for a fine of $5,250 after it took steps to remedy the problems.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also had the company in their sights over claims by the agency that West Fertilizer did not have an updated risk management plan. The company squashed the issue by submitting a new plan in 2011, but in those documents, the company did not list fire or an explosion as a potential danger.

In 2012 the company filed a disclosure with the Texas Department of State Health which declared that volatile chemicals, along with 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, were stored on the property.

But according to federal regulations, that was 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate the company should have possessed on site and would normally have lead to an immediate safety review by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The company was required to tell DHS officials, as they are the ones who regulate ammonium nitrate. Fertilizer plants and distribution facilities must self report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (181 kg) or more of the crop nutrient. Failure to report these volumes can lead to fines or orders to shut down from the DHS

While the explosion has drawn the promise of federal relief and assistance, there are some in Washington, DC questioning how there could be such a shortcoming in oversight and disclosure within the programme which oversees more than 4,000 sites nationwide.

“This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act, yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up," said Representative Bennie Thompson, ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Adopted in 2007 the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act was designed to thwart sabotage of fertilizer and chemicals facilities as well as laying the basis for securing these materials and to prevent them from ending up the hands of criminals and terrorist organisations.

Members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) National Response Team are in the town of West and are still conducting an investigation.

ATF spokesperson Franceska Perot said that the investigators are searching through debris and have brought in heavy machinery to excavate larger pieces of materials that were involved in the blast but it could be a lengthy process before determining a cause.

She said the agency is not going to speculate as to a determination or if it is simply an industrial accident or a criminal matter until the review is completed.

“It is a very tedious process because we are excavating layer by layer and it will be several days before we get to the bottom layer,” said Perot. “We are not going to say what this may reveal, we are trying to see what the evidence is and let the evidence lead us.”

By: Mark Milam
+1 713 525 2653

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