The Herald Bulletin

Afternoon Update

Breaking News

April 21, 2013

Safety rules limited for small fertilizer plants

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 this week.

This is not unusual.

Small fertilizer plants nationwide fall under the purview of several government agencies, each with a specific concern and none required to coordinate with others on what they have found.

The small distributors — there are as many as 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 federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. According to a document filed in 2012 with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the maximum amount of this "extremely hazardous substance" the plant could store in one container was 90 tons, and the most it could have on site was 270 tons. It is unknown how much was onsite at any given time, or at the time of the explosion.

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," Ramiro Garcia, the head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Associated Press.

"So the inspections are complaint driven. We usually look at more of the major facilities."

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. The damage from the blast destroyed an apartment complex, nursing home and houses in a four-block area.

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 that followed could be heard miles away and was so powerful it registered as a small earthquake.

The West Fertilizer Co. stored, distributed and blended fertilizers 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. Wednesday night, residents and rescue workers tried to evacuate the area as the fire consumed the plant.

Donald Adair, the plant's owner, said in a statement Friday he was cooperating with the investigation and expressed sympathy for the victims. He has not returned phone calls seeking comment.

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

Last summer, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

David Gray, an EPA spokesman in Dallas, said the company's plan identified a worst-case scenario as an accidental release of all 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which at room temperature is a gas.

"This scenario is a plausible worse-case scenario as gaseous anhydrous ammonia can be lethal," Gray said.

The risk management plan also did not cite a possible explosion of ammonium nitrate, the solid granular fertilizer stored at the site. But that would not be unusual, he said, because ammonium nitrate is not regulated under the Clean Air Act.

The plant's plan said there was no risk of fire or explosion and noted they had no sprinklers, water deluge or other safety mechanisms installed.

"We do not yet know what happened at this facility. The ongoing investigation will inform us on the plan's adequacy," Gray said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also dealt with the company and issued a permit for handling anhydrous ammonia, which requires safety equipment the company had told the EPA it didn't have. But TCEQ acknowledged it may never have checked to confirm the equipment was there.

"It's a minor source under the Clean Air Act so it doesn't get much scrutiny at all," said Neil Carman, a Sierra Club clean air expert and chemist who used to work for the TCEQ.

The company's last contact with regulation may have come as recently as April 5, when the Texas 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. His inspectors found no problems, he said, but they would not have checked for safety systems such as sprinklers. That office also provided the company with the required license to store and handle ammonia nitrate and renewed it in September after a summer inspection, he said.

Many other towns in Texas have small fertilizer distributors operating under similar regulations near populated areas.

Matt Murray, owner of ABC Fertilizer and Supply in Corsicana, bought his facility about 15 years ago. It sits in an industrial zone in the town of about 23,700 people, but in a community barely five miles long, it is still not far from the population center, he said.

"Every little community, town that's in Texas, has one of these," he said.

Murray's facility also has a state license to sell ammonium nitrate.

Even though Murray said he has discussed an evacuation plan with his local fire chief, there is nothing in writing. And he isn't required to have a formal plan. That may be changing now, he said.

"It's been something that's been brewing for years and years, ever since Oklahoma," he said.

1
Text Only
Breaking News
  • SPT-HB0725-ColtsCamp-080.jpg Colts Camp Update: Colts urging caution with vets, injured players

    Reggie Wayne isn't the only veteran player whose snaps are being watched as practice begins at Indianapolis Colts training camp.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Holiday World plans new winged roller coaster

    The Holiday World amusement park in southern Indiana is building a new $22 million roller coaster that it says will launch riders to 60 miles an hour in 3.5 seconds, with a 14-story loop and four inversions.

    July 25, 2014

  • World Cup over, but some Argentines won't go home

    Local media reports say tens of thousands of Argentine fans remain in Brazil. They appear to be overwhelmingly young and male: Most are in their 20s, and less than a third of them are women.

    July 25, 2014

  • Doctor: Patient killed caseworker before gunfight

    A doctor told police that a patient fatally shot a caseworker at their hospital complex before the doctor pulled out his own gun and exchanged fire with him and wounded him, a prosecutor said Thursday night.

    July 25, 2014

  • Feds plan review of FSSA over Medicaid backlog

    Federal officials are reviewing Indiana's procedures for enrolling residents in Medicaid after finding the state had 80,000 low-income residents awaiting approval in May.

    July 25, 2014

  • Very bad week: Airline disasters come in a cluster

    Nearly 300 passengers perish when their plane is shot out of the sky. Airlines suspend flights to Israel's largest airport after rocket attacks. An airliner crashes during a storm, and yet another disappears. Aviation has suffered one of its worst weeks in memory, a cluster of disasters spanning three continents.

    July 24, 2014

  • Indiana receives 245 children caught at US border

    New federal data show more than 200 unaccompanied children caught at the U.S. border have been placed with sponsors in Indiana.

    July 24, 2014

  • Witness: Teen's plane didn't show obvious distress

    A man who saw a plane flown by an Indiana teen who was killed during an around-the-world flight attempt says the aircraft was flying low but didn't show any obvious signs of distress before diving into the ocean off American Samoa.

    July 24, 2014

  • Ryan Dalziel takes Brickyard Grand Prix pole

    Defending race winner Ryan Dalziel earned his first IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship pole position of the season Thursday in qualifying for Friday's Brickyard Grand Prix.

    July 24, 2014

  • Ohio State marching band chief fired after probe

    Ohio State University fired the director of its celebrated marching band on Thursday after determining he ignored a "sexualized" culture of rituals including students being pressured to march in their underwear and participate in sexually themed stunts.

    July 24, 2014

Featured Ads
More Resources from The Herald Bulletin
AP Video
Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kerry: No Deal Yet on 7-Day Gaza Truce Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow Gaza Residents Mourn Dead Amid Airstrikes Raw: Deadly Tornado Hits Virginia Campground Ohio State Marching Band Chief Fired After Probe Raw: Big Rig Stuck in Illinois Swamp Cumberbatch Brings 'Penguins' to Comic-Con Raw: Air Algerie Crash Site in Mali Power to Be Restored After Wash. Wildfire Crashed Air Algerie Plane Found in Mali Israel Mulls Ceasefire Amid Gaza Offensive In Case of Fire, Oxygen Masks for Pets Mobile App Gives Tour of Battle of Atlanta Sites
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Helium debate
Helium
Front page
Poll

Do you think Madison County and its cities need stricter pet ownership laws?

Yes, animal abuse is rampant in our area and something needs to be done.
Yes, but it may not help. It’s difficult to enforce such laws.
No, the laws are fine as they are.
Not sure
     View Results