The West, Texas fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people has sparked concern for communities nationwide over the potential hazards presented by stores of ammonium nitrate. A debate has also been sparked concerning new regulations for the agricultural chemical.
The fertilizer plant explosion also destroyed a nursing home and two schools, and left a 93-foot wide by 10-food deep crater. Some 200 people were injured and thousands of residents were forced to flee from and evacuate their homes over safety concerns and the ongoing investigation. At least 50 homes were demolished. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF); the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the Texas State Fire Marshal were investigating the blast and the fire just prior to the explosion, according to CBS News. The only cause that has been ruled out is weather, the ATF said.
State records revealed that the West Fertilizer plant had a yearly capacity of 2,400 tons of ammonium nitrate, which is potentially explosive. The U.S. Homeland Security Department said the West Fertilizer Co. facility is not regulated under a Department program created to reduce certain terrorism risks at some high-risk chemical facilities, said CBS News previously. CBS-11 learned that Homeland Security is determining if the plant should have submitted paperwork about the chemicals stored there.
Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive material that has been linked to industrial accidents and terrorist attacks. It was this solid fertilizer that Timothy McVeigh used to demolish the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City; 168 people died.
Adair Grain, Inc., the parent company of West Fertilizer Co., has been accused of negligence, according to court documents related to just-filed lawsuits, said Reuters. Adair Grain held 270 tons of ammonium nitrate as of December 31, according to a Texas Department of State Health Services report. “Texas has gone out of its way to maintain a reputation for low regulation,” said Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, wrote Bloomberg News. “We’re all for creating jobs and good conditions for business, but it shouldn’t cost you your life.”
West, Texas, Superintendent, Marty Crawford, said he had long worried about an explosion like the one in West. “We crossed our fingers that that could never happen,” Crawford said, speaking to reporters, according to Bloomberg News. The blast has raised concerns about land use near plants that handle dangerous chemicals, said Bloomberg News. The various federal and state regulations and zoning laws appear to favor property owners over people who live and work near the toxic materials.
A recent review conducted by the Wall Street Journal found that many Texas facilities that store large quantities of ammonium nitrate also store explosives. Those facilities are subject to more stringent regulations than West Fertilizer Co. The Journal also reviewed chemical inventories for about 70,000 facilities in reports submitted to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which are mandated by federal and state laws. According to the review, 27 Texas facilities—owned by companies that make or sell fertilizer—reported storing at least 10,000 pounds of dry ammonium nitrate. Most are what the Journal described as “outposts” located in rural hamlets—some are located within a mile of schools and homes.
Now, there is a call for implementing regulations on retail fertilizer stores, such as keeping a minimum distance from populated areas. In the 1,000-person farming community of Cross Plains, Texas is located near the nine-employee Lawrence Farm & Ranch Supply, according to The Journal. The shop stores up to 100,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, according to the firm’s disclosure report. “It would probably be better if they didn’t store those chemicals within the city limits, but at this point, there are no guidelines as far as that goes,” Debbie Gosnell, the city administrator told the Journal. Gosnell pointed out that Cross Plains does not yet have an emergency plan in place for chemical accidents.
West Fertilizer stored ammonium nitrate since at least as far back as 2004 but had not disclosed that information to Texas state officials until 2012. Meanwhile, noted the Journal, federal law does not require facilities to disclose ammonium nitrate when it is combined as a fertilizer and sold directly to consumers.