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Lack of oversight, regulations blamed in Texas explosion

  • Article by: MANNY FERNANDEZ New York Times
  • April 22, 2014 - 8:10 PM

– Federal investigators have determined that too little oversight and an absence of 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, the U.S. 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 were largely unaware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate, and a local emergency planning committee had not adopted an emergency response plan. 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. 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,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board. “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.”

Fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate is not classified as an explosive in the United States. In 2002, the Chemical Safety Board recommended that such chemicals be included in safety regulations used by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Neither agency had adopted the recommendations at the time of the explosion.

The explosion at the plant in West killed 14 people and injured more than 200 others.

© 2014 Star Tribune