DALLAS — Federal investigators have determined that a lack of oversight and regulations at the local, state, and federal levels contributed to the deadly fertilizer plant explosion that devastated a rural Texas town last year.
Five days after the anniversary of the explosion in the town of West, one of the worst industrial accidents in the state’s history, the US Chemical Safety Board released the preliminary findings of its investigation at a news conference in Dallas on Tuesday. The report highlighted a series of shortcomings, both in how the West Fertilizer Co. handled the agricultural chemical that touched off the explosion — ammonium nitrate — and in how various agencies oversaw the company’s operations and storage of the chemical.
Tiny white pellets of ammonium nitrate were stored in a wooden warehouse in wooden bins, inside a building without a sprinkler system. No federal regulations exist preventing a company from storing the chemical in such a way. The volunteer firefighters who rushed to the plant to fight a fire that broke out there before the explosion were largely unaware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate, and a local emergency planning committee had not adopted an emergency response plan for the plant. Even if they had, Texas has no statewide fire code that would have established a minimum set of standards to hold industrial sites accountable for the safe handling of chemicals.
Ammonium nitrate is stored at more than 1,300 facilities around the country, but there are no zoning regulations at any level of government to prevent such plants from being located near residential areas, officials said Tuesday. Other countries have more rigorous standards covering the storage of the chemical and the proximity to other buildings.
“The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable,” Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, told reporters. “It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state, and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”
Agency officials said no other single chemical has caused more widespread harm to the public in preventable accidents than ammonium nitrate. Nevertheless, fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate is not classified as an explosive in the United States. In 2002, the Chemical Safety Board recommended that so-called reactive chemicals such as ammonium nitrate be included in safety regulations used by two federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Neither agency had adopted the recommendations at the time of the explosion.
“Had regulators acted on our recommendations sooner, there would have been additional requirements for safer handling and storage and the accident might have been prevented,” said Moure-Eraso, whose agency does not issue citations or fines but makes safety recommendations.
The explosion at the plant in West killed 14 people, injured more than 200 others, and destroyed or damaged hundreds of the town’s 700 homes. At 7:31 p.m. on April 17, 2013, the first 911 call came in about a fire at the plant. Twenty-two minutes later, after the fire intensified, an explosion ripped through the plant and the nearby residential neighborhoods, leaving a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Between 40 to 60 tons of the chemical was kept inside the warehouse, and another 100 tons was in a rail car adjacent to the plant, in addition to two partially filled 12,000-gallon tanks of another chemical, anhydrous ammonia.
One year later, West, which is 20 miles north of Waco, continues to rebuild its housing and infrastructure.