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Report: Dangers remain 3 years after West explosion

Little has been accomplished since the disaster, despite some state legislation and an executive order from President Barack Obama to improve chemical facility safety


Scroll to the bottom of the story to watch U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s 12-minute video on the deadly explosion.

Houston Chronicle

WEST, Texas — Almost all Texas fertilizer plants like the one that exploded nearly three years ago in West — killing 15 people and injuring hundreds — are within a quarter-mile of a residence and little has been done to protect the public, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board says in a report to be released Thursday.

While the precise cause of the blast will probably never be known, the CSB’s 265-page final report describes in painstaking detail a host of failures by the West Fertilizer Company, the government, fire officials, insurance companies and others that allowed tens of thousands of pounds of ammonium nitrate to detonate.

The blast destroyed homes, schools, apartments and a nursing home.

The board’s litany of recommendations shows how little has been accomplished since the disaster, despite some state legislation and an executive order from President Barack Obama directing federal agencies to improve chemical facility safety. The CSB, an independent government agency, investigates chemical accidents but has no enforcement authority.

It called changes to state law in 2015 “not entirely adequate” to prevent future ammonium nitrate catastrophes, saying House Bill 942 mostly restated existing regulations. It did not add protections like prohibiting storage in combustible wooden bins.

Texas has no restrictions on the location of hazardous materials facilities.

The dangers exposed in West are not unique. The report cites 15 CSB investigations of accidents involving chemicals, each with an impact on the public.

“This incident represents a microcosm of the potential harms that many communities across the nation could endure,” the CSB’s report said.

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters lists more than 400 separate chemical accidents across the country since the West explosion. The Houston area had its first chemical incident fatality of 2016 during an explosion at a PeroxyChem facility Jan. 16.

Firefighters untrained
Fire erupted at West Fertilizer after 7 p.m. on April 17, 2013. Members of the West Volunteer Fire Department rushed to the scene, unaware of the explosive danger of ammonium nitrate and poorly trained to handle a complex hazardous materials incident, the CSB found.

Instead, firefighters focused on cooling tanks of anhydrous ammonia, which could have released a poisonous cloud had they ruptured. The report notes that volunteer fire departments across the state often receive little training and conflicting information about how to respond to such incidents.

Within minutes, the blast thundered across town, registering as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. Had it happened earlier in the day, with school in session, hundreds more people would likely have been killed and injured, the CSB concluded.

Fire investigators narrowed the cause of the blast to three possibilities: electrical wiring, a short-circuited golf cart or arson.

West Fertilizer had been warned by its insurer about corroded wiring and poor electrical installations, but didn’t correct the problems, the CSB found. The company has denied it mishandled fertilizer.

Texas lawmakers quashed a bill that would have enabled rules prohibiting ammonium nitrate storage in flammable containers. They did pass a measure authorizing inspections of ammonium nitrate facilities by fire officials, plus fines of a few thousand dollars for violations related to hazardous conditions.

The CSB recommends the Texas Department of Insurance tell underwriters to require safer storage conditions because “insurance audits can be more frequent than state or federal enforcement inspections.” Until the morning after the explosion, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had not visited West Fertilizer since 1985.

OSHA did not cover ammonium nitrate as part of its hazardous chemical list and rarely enforced its rules regarding explosives.

The Environmental Protection Agency does not require risk management plans from companies storing ammonium nitrate. Those plans predict worst-case scenarios to share with first-responders.

The Department of Homeland Security found West Fertilizer Company never complied with federal security regulations, but it did not fine the company.

Dangers were known
The dangers of ammonia-based fertilizer products were well known long before West. Ammonium nitrate was an ingredient in the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. In 2009, a fire at a fertilizer plant in Bryan prompted the evacuation of 80,000 residents. Fire officials maintained a safe distance, let the building burn, and no one was injured.

An extensive post-incident analysis of the Bryan fire was never shared with the West Volunteer Fire Department, the CSB found.

The board will hold a public meeting on the West disaster Thursday in Waco. Lawsuits involving hundreds of plaintiffs, including the city of West, remain pending against the plant owners and fertilizer suppliers. West Fertilizer is no longer in business.

The blast caused an estimated $230 million in losses, and while some residents rebuilt, others, including dozens of nursing home patients, never came back.

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