Focus story by Mark Milam
HOUSTON (ICIS)--In the early evening of 17 April 2013, an explosion at a retail fertilizer distribution facility in central Texas fractured a close-knit community and shook the fertilizer industry and those who regulate it in North America.
It brought death and destruction to the community of West, Texas while also painfully reminding the industry of the hazards of the products it profits from, as well as of need for improved safety not only for the bottom line but for a public that is becoming increasingly aware of the potential dangers of these type of facilities and operations, which often are located close to communities.
Claiming 15 lives and injuring over 200, the ammonium nitrate (AN) fuelled explosion at West Fertilizer has left its imprints in the lives lost and those who have rebuilt the community over the past year. It also has led to a movement towards implementing changes to chemical regulations and more government oversight of these types of facilities.
The fertilizer industry has also taken notice. Through organizations such as The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), there is more of a mindset that safety is not just part of the equation - it must be a top priority for all involved.
It was a tremendous explosion. Some witnesses described it as a fireball in the sky.
The fire started at about 19:30 local time. Volunteer firefighters from the area responded quickly. They almost immediately called for assistance, as they discovered the blaze had engulfed a storage building and offices in flames.
At about 19:50 local time, the fire reached the storage area where the company had its stockpiles of AN. The product ignited and sent out a blast that ripped through the facility and several city blocks.
Emergency personnel at the time were attempting to withdraw from the facility. Twelve firefighters lost their lives in the blast.
Registering 2.1 magnitude on the US Geological Survey’s Richter Scale, the blast blew through a school, nursing homes, apartment buildings and surrounding businesses. By some estimates, the blast was equivalent to 15,000-20,000 lbs of TNT. The damage has been estimated at over $100m.
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NO SINGLE CAUSE
A year later, investigations into the accident have yet to be finalised, with agencies like the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and Texas's State Fire Marshal Office having yet to issue their respective reports, although the CSB plans to release its initial findings during a public meeting in West on 22 April.
Officials back in May were unable to determine what caused the massive lethal explosion after a comprehensive on-site investigation. Authorities with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the State Fire Marshal's Office would only state definitively that AN was stored in wooden bins at the facility and was the source of the blast.
About 150 tons (136 tonnes) were on-site within the seed building at West Fertilizer at the time of the blast. The AN was located a short distance from where investigators think the fire ignited within the 12,000 sq ft (1,116sqm) structure.
ATF officials said that the agency was able to eliminate the possibility of rekindling of an earlier fire as a culprit and had also determined that the distribution facility had two electrical systems, with the larger of the two having been ruled out as a source of the fire. The ATF also eliminated ammonia stored on the property as a potential fire source, as well as a discarded cigarette or weather as causes of the blaze.
The agency did say that investigators could not disqualify the smaller electrical system, described as 120-volt power supply similar to one in most homes, a battery-powered golf cart or an intentional act as causes of the fire.
The suspicion of the golf carts was based on the agency’s theory that there is a history of the devices combusting and the fact that the vehicle was located within the same seed storage building. Investigators have only recovered a brake pad and an axle from the golf cart, which was not enough evidence to eliminate it as a source, they said.
REBUILDING A TOWN
One of the first things survivors of the tragic accident focused on after grieving was rebuilding their community. In many ways, rural, agriculture-centric West is quintessential small-town Texas.
Left with a portion of the town in rumbles, the community has worked to slowly put the pieces back together with the help of federal and state aid and the kindness of neighbours.
While they move forward, they will not forget, West mayor Tommy Muska said.
"There is no way of measuring the people that died and saying we are benefitting from the loss," Muska said. "I don't ever think you can say you are benefitting from it, but we're rebuilding. We're going to build it back, and it might end up being better the way we build it."
At this point, West has received just over $8m in state funds, and the total disaster aid available to the town is estimated at $20m. About $9m of that is specifically from small business loans. Improvements to street, water and sewer projects in the immediate blast area will require about $3m, West officials said. City officials recently said that the town received nearly $3.6m in private donations, which have helped in providing assistance for items such as shelter and food.
Another bright spot is the help the city's volunteer fire department has received, as there has been new vehicles donated to replace the three fire trucks that were destroyed. About $20m in federal aid will be coming to the community's school district, which saw its middle and high school buildings damaged in the blast.
FUTURE FOR FERTILIZER
As a community well versed in the ways of agriculture, it figured that it would not be long before the issue of whether or not the community, which had previously had a local source to acquire fertilizer for over 50 years, would bring up the question of should it have another retail operation that stored dangerous products.
Muska was at a town meeting on charting a future direction for the community when he said that a fertilizer mixing plant to supply local farmers might be rebuilt. After taking some criticism from those who thought it was too soon, the mayor pointed out that it would be state-of-the-art and subject to much more oversight.
If the town does decide to allow the building of a new fertilizer facility, plant officials will make sure they apply lessons learned and strive to exert more control over potential liabilities.
West Fertilizer was located outside the city limits, but the community had grown up around it to the point that there was not a buffer zone.
“It’s hard for some people, harder for some. It’s hard for me,” said Muska. “"I think down the road we need a fertilizer plant somewhere. Right now it might be a hard sell for people here.”
The fertilizer industry is in the safety spotlight as a result of the West Fertilizer incident. As a result, industry and producers have become more proactive in their approach to safeguarding their facilities and right to continue operating.
A big hurdle for the industry is public perception that fertilizers are dangerous and that operations pose serious risk to the public. TFI president Chris Jahn said last year that a survey showed only 18% of people believe that the industry handles its products safely and securely.
In the end, the tragedy that unfolded that April evening in central Texas can been viewed retrospectively as sending a clear message to fertilizer producers about the need for safety and the industry's obligation to raise public awareness.
PotashCorp CEO Bill Doyle said shortly after the accident that he saw it as a turning point in the industry and that he hoped that it would remind everyone that safety needs to be the top priority.
“One of the focuses I really wanted our industry to concentrate on was safety and the safety of our people and communities in which we operate in," Doyle said. "It is absolutely paramount to this industry, and I hope that West, Texas and the tragic events there hopefully will be a final wakeup call for our industry."
WASHINGTON WANTS CHANGE
Already, the federal government has taken steps to exert some safeguards and reign in what many in the view as an industry lacking rigourous standards and controls.
In August, US President Barack Obama signed an executive order charging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the ATF to begin to reviewing the nation's chemical-safety regulations and propose changes.
Obama also sought to improve communication among regulators regarding facilities similar to West Fertilizer. The order called for a modernisation of policies and standards currently used to regulate the chemical industry.
“Chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute and use them are essential to our economy. However, incidents such as the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, in April are tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed,” Obama said.
The multi-agency group was ordered to report back to within nine months but have been delayed. It is now anticipated the group will submit their report to Obama by the end of May.
Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat-California), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has been steadfast in urging the government to finalise its efforts. During a hearing held earlier this year regarding progress of the executive order, Boxer said that she was looking for action but so far had only seen a lot of rhetoric.
“The ever-growing list of catastrophic failures should be a wakeup call for all of us, and we must take steps to ensure that similar disasters never happen again,” Boxer said. “Federal safety and health officials must use all available tools to protect the health and safety of people working in and living near chemical facilities.”
In the end, for those directly impacted by the explosion that night one year ago, all that really matters is remembering those who have been lost and the lives and memories they left behind.
A remembrance programme called "4-17 Forever Forward" will begin at 19:30 local time Thursday in West to mark the tragedy's one-year anniversary. It will include a moment of silence at the moment of the explosion. Those to be honoured are:
Morris Bridges Jr, 41, member of West Volunteer Fire Department
Perry Calvin, 37, member of Mertens and Navarro Mills volunteer fire departments
Jerry Chapman, 26, a member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department
Cody Dragoo, 50, a member of West Volunteer Fire Department
Kenneth Harris Jr, 52, a Dallas Fire-Rescue captain
Adolph Lander, 96, nursing home resident who died on 18 April 2013 from injuries sustained from the blast
Jimmy Matus, 52, member of West Volunteer Fire Department
Judith Monroe, 65, who died in an apartment complex adjacent to West Fertilizer
Joey Pustejovsky Jr, 29, secretary for the city of West and a volunteer firefighter
Cyrus Reed, 29, member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department
Mariano Saldivar, 57, who died in an apartment complex adjacent to West Fertilizer
Kevin Sanders, 33, member of Bruceville-Eddy Volunteer Fire Department
Doug Snokhous, 50, member of West Volunteer Fire Department
Robert Snokhous, 48, member of West Volunteer Fire Department
William Uptmor Jr, 45, business owner