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Smaller fertilizer plants fall through regulatory cracks

Several agencies check in but don’t work together

Workers examined wreckage in West, Texas, on Saturday, three days after the blast.

CHARLIE RIEDEL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Workers examined wreckage in West, Texas, on Saturday, three days after the blast.

HOUSTON — There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems. Safety inspections were rare at the fertilizer company in West, Texas, that exploded and killed at least 14 people last week.

This is not unusual.

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Small fertilizer plants nationwide fall under the purview of several government agencies, each with a specific concern, and the agencies are not required to coordinate with others on what they have found.

The small distributors — there are as many of 1,150 in Texas alone — are part of a regulatory system that focuses on large installations and industries, though many of the small plants contain enough agricultural chemicals to fuel a major explosion.

The plant in West had ammonium nitrate, the chemical used to build the bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.

It was also authorized to handle up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a substance the Texas environmental agency considers flammable and potentially toxic.

‘‘This type of facility is a minor source of air emissions,’’ said Ramiro Garcia, the head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. ‘‘So the inspections are complaint driven. We usually look at more of the major facilities.’’

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No federal agency determines how close a facility hand­ling potentially dangerous substances can be to population centers, and in many states, including Texas, many of these decisions are left up to local zoning authorities.

And in Texas, the state’s minimal approach to zoning puts plants just yards away from schools, houses, and other populated areas, as was the case in West.

That plant received a special permit because it was less than 3,000 feet from a school.

State and federal investigators have not yet determined the cause of the disaster, which occurred Wednesday night after a fire broke out at the site after work hours. The explosion could be heard miles away and was so powerful it registered as a small earthquake.

The West Fertilizer Co. stored, distributed, and blended fertilizers, including anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, for use by farmers around the Central Texas community. The plant opened in 1962 outside the rural town of 2,800, but development gradually crept closer.

Donald Adair, the plant’s owner, said in a statement Friday, he was cooperating with the investigation, and expressed sympathy for the victims.

Over the years, the fertilizer company was fined and cited for violations by federal and state agencies.

Last summer, the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration assessed a $10,000 fine against West Fertilizer for improperly labeling storage tanks and preparing to transfer chemicals without a security plan. The company paid $5,250 after reporting it had corrected the problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency also cited the plant for not having an up-to-date risk management plan. That problem was also resolved, and the company submitted a new plan in 2011. That plan, however, said the company did not believe it was storing or handling any flammable substances, and didn’t list fire or an explosion as a danger.

The company’s last contact with regulation may have come as recently as April 5, when the Office of the State Chemist inspected the plant. But that agency focuses mostly on ensuring that commercial fertilizers are properly labeled and blended, said Roger Hoestenbach, the office’s associate director.

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