WASHINGTON (ICIS)--The devastating chemical-facility explosion at a fertilizer facility in Texas, was, in part, due to inadequate precautions but also to a patchwork of national hazardous materials safety standards, a lead investigator said on Thursday.
Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), told a Senate hearing that the explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer facility in West, Texas, on 17 April might have been averted if recommended safety measures had been in place.
Moure-Eraso was also giving testimony about the explosion at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar, Louisiana.
The 13 June explosion and fire at the Williams plant killed two employees and injured 105 other workers.
The explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer facility killed 12 emergency responders and two civilians, injured more than 200 residents of the nearby town and caused an estimated $230m (€177m) worth of damage in the area.
Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Moure-Eraso said that the West disaster began with a fire of unknown origin in one of the facility’s warehouses, and it soon ignited some 30 tonnes of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (AN).
In his remarks, he said that the West facility lacked a sprinkler system or other systems to automatically detect or suppress fire. Also, the AN was stored in combustible wooden bins, and they were near significant amounts of combustible seeds in the same warehouse.
He noted that West Fertilizer officials have cooperated fully with the CSB investigation of the accident.
Beyond the safety precaution shortcomings at the West facility, Moure-Eraso said that existing codes for the safe handling and storage of AN may be inadequate.
“Both the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) … have written code provisions for the safety of ammonium nitrate,” he said.
However, “many of these safety provisions are quite old and appear to be confusing or contradictory, even to code experts, and are in need of a comprehensive review in light of the West disaster and other recent accidents”, he said.
He also said that other nations’ safety codes for AN are more rigorous and modern, citing those of the UK for one.
“To summarise,” Moure-Eraso told the panel, “the safety of ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of US regulatory standards and guidance - a patchwork that has many large holes.”
“Specifically, the CSB has not identified any US standards or guidance that prohibit or discourage many of the factors that likely contributed to the West disaster,” he said.
“Combustible wooden buildings and storage bins are permitted for storing AN across the US - exposing AN to the threat of fire,” he said, adding: “Sprinklers are generally not required unless very large quantities of AN are being stored or fire authorities order sprinklers to be installed.”
Further, “federal, state, and local rules do not prohibit the siting of AN storage near homes and other vulnerable facilities such as schools and hospitals”.
Moure-Eraso also praised the cooperation and the voluntary safety work and recommendations of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) and the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA).
However, he added, “these voluntary programmes should complement a thorough effort by the federal government to review and improve the comprehensive safety oversight of ammonium nitrate fertilizer distribution”.
“The time for that effort is now,” he said.
He also called for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to broaden the application of its risk management programme (RMP) and to make greater use of the Clean Air Act’s general duty clause to warn facility operators of site safety risks.
Moure-Eraso said the CSB has yet to begin a detailed investigation of the Geismar accident because the badly damaged plant site is still too hazardous for entry due to overhanging debris.
($1 = €0.77)