Explosion investigators rule out natural causes and ammonium rail car

23 April 2013 23:28  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Texas officials have ruled out natural causes such as a lightning strike as the cause of the fire that led to the explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, and have determined that a railroad car filled with ammonium nitrate cannot be blamed for the deadly event, authorities said on Tuesday.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said that while officials have yet to determine the exact culprit in sparking the huge blast on 17 April that killed 14 people and levelled buildings, investigators have discovered the site of the explosion was not on the railroad spur where the suspected carload of ammonium nitrate was located.

Kistner said the rail car “is a victim of that explosion” and was not the key to the detonation that registered a force equal to a small earthquake and shook the small central Texas community.

On Monday, the chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) suggested that a possible theory was that the accident may be the result of the fire spreading from the initial facility site to the adjacent railroad line, where authorities think there was a hopper car loaded with an unknown amount of ammonium nitrate.

With evidence of damage to the rail car and train tracks, Shaw had said he was not in favour of the notion that the fire that started at West Fertilizer had ignited the ammonia storage tanks located on the property, as he had not seen any previous examples where similar containers had exploded in such a violent and lethal manner.

The massive eruption has left a crater measuring 10 ft deep and 93 ft in diameter.

Currently, investigators from several state and federal agencies, including members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Response Team and the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), are tediously going through the site, excavating remains to use as evidence in determining the cause of the accident.

Both federal agencies have declined to speculate on whether there was any criminal motivation in the fire and subsequent explosion, or if the tragedy was simple an industrial accident.

In 2012, West Fertilizer filed a disclosure with the Texas Department of Health that declared that volatile chemicals, along with 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, were stored on the property. According to federal regulations, that was 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that the company should have possessed onsite and would normally have led to an immediate safety review by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The company was required to tell DHS officials since the DHS regulates ammonium nitrate. Fertilizer plants and distribution facilities must report to DHS when they hold 400 lbs or more of ammonium nitrate, which has been used in creating bombs. Failure to report these volumes can lead to fines or orders to shut down the facility, according to the DHS.


By: Mark Milam



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