HOUSTON (ICIS)--The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said on Tuesday that the April 2013 fire and fertilizer fueled explosion at West Fertilizers was preventable and highlights the shortcomings of existing governmental regulations over chemical hazards.
In a release of its preliminary findings, the CSB said, after spending a year reviewing the deadly accident, that it is the agency’s view that the fire and explosion at the fertilizer distribution facility was a result of West Fertilizer not taking the necessary steps to avoid the incident and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify and correct the potential hazards.
The massive blast killed 15, injured approximately 200 and caused over $100m in damages when ammonium nitrate (AN) stored at the facility caught fire and erupted. It destroyed 150 buildings and 77 homes as well as severely damaging three schools in the small farming community in central Texas.
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents. The board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organisations, labour groups and regulatory agencies.
“The CSB found at all levels of government a failure to adopt codes to keep populated areas away from hazardous facilities, not just in West, Texas. We found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate. Farm communities are just starting to collect data on how close homes or schools are to AN storage, but there can be little doubt that West is not alone and that other communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity,” said Johnnie Banks, CSB supervisory investigator.
The CSB investigation found that at the state level, Texas has no fire code and it determined that lessons learned during emergency responses to AN incidents have not been effectively disseminated to firefighters and emergency responders in other communities where the fertilizer product is stored and utilised. In addition the CSB has concluded that the West volunteer firefighters were not aware of the explosion hazard at West Fertilizer and were caught in harm’s way when the blast occurred.
The agency noted in its investigation that while US standards for AN have remained static for decades, other countries have more rigorous standards covering both storage and siting of nearby buildings.
At the county level in Texas, the McLennan County’s local emergency planning committee did not have an emergency response plan for West Fertilizer as it might have done under the Federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. The CSB said this shows that community was not fully aware of the potential hazard at the facility.
CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso did commended the action by The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) in establishing an auditing and outreach programme for fertilizer retailers called ResponsibleAg, and for disseminating with the Agricultural Retailers Association a document called “Safety and Security Guidelines for the Storage and Transportation of Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate at Fertilizer Retail Facilities”.
The CSB did not reveal when it expects to finalise its investigation but will be holding a public meeting in West, Texas, to present the preliminary results and respond to any inquiries from the community. Separate investigations by the Texas State Fire Marshal and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are still pending.