Fertilizer Plant Housed Explosive Chemical Before Blast

by | Apr 22, 2013

EPAOfficials continue to investigate last week’s fire and explosion at West Fertilizer, which killed at least 14 and injuring 200 in the small central Texas town. But it does appear the fertilizer plant — which housed some 270 tons of ammonium nitrate — may have violated a host of environmental and safety regulations before the deadly blast.

Despite storing a potentially explosive fertilizer, the facility, located close to a nursing home, school and residential buildings, had filed no contingency plan with the EPA for a major explosion or fire at the site, Reuters reports.

In 2006, the EPA fined the company $2,300 for failing to complete and file an adequate risk management plan.

West Fertilizer’s 2011 risk management plan (RMP) identified potential hazards including equipment failure; toxic release; overpressure, corrosion, or overfilling of equipment; an earthquake; or a tornado. Plant operators disclosed to the EPA that the facility stored anhydrous ammonia, a chemical used as a fertilizer, which is toxic to inhale but not considered explosive. But the worst-case scenario for the plant “would be the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes,” the RMP says. It reported no flammable material on site.

However, in a separate filing this year, West Fertilzer disclosed to the Texas Department of State Health Services that, as of 2012, the company also stored more volatile chemicals including 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, Reuters reports.

After the blast, McLennan County Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon told the news agency ammonium nitrate was found at the scene.

Investigators from the US Chemical Safety Board arrived at the fertilizer plant on April 18, and continue to investigate what caused the April 17 fire and explosion.

West Fertilizer paid more than $5,000 in fines last year after being cited for mislabeled cargo tanks and inadequate transport practices, Industry Week reports.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reports that it investigated the fertilizer plant seven times since 2002. About half were routine and the other half were in response to complaints. The most recent was in 2007.

This means West Fertilizer hadn’t been inspected by state authorities in six years, The Texas Tribune reports.

In a press conference, TCEQ director Zak Covar told reporters the 51-year-old plant had been “grandfathered” from certain environmental regulations until 2004. In 2006, state officials determined the plant did not have the necessary air pollution permits. This complaint was resolved when the TCEQ asked the company to “come in and get authorized,” Covar said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration most recently inspected the fertilizer plant in 1985, the Associated Press reports. At that time, OSHA fined the company $30 for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia. The maximum fine for a serious violation was $1,000, AP reports.


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