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Fertilizer Plant Explosion Exposes Industry’s Dangers

It might have been lost in the news cycle except that the massive explosion in West, Texas, occurred on the slowest night of Boston’s gut-wrenching week of terror. Tuned to our televisions as we were, Americans endured the devastation and innocent loss of life at the fertilizer plant almost as part of one weeklong national tragedy.

Of course, the events were completely distinct and of very different causes.

While the terror in Boston is hard to fathom and was virtually impossible to prevent, the workplace tragedy in Texas, unfortunately, is all too commonplace. Yet, it has an evolving and elusive aspect, too. Is it simply the old story of a workplace accident that could have been prevented, or was the company involved in a knowing effort to evade U.S. Homeland Security?

For reasons still unknown, late in the afternoon on April 17, after the plant had closed for the day, a fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Company on the southwest edge of the small, rural community of West, population 2,800, about 80 miles south of Dallas. With the town’s volunteer firefighters arriving on the scene, the fire triggered a massive explosion. Registering as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, it shattered windows and smashed doors for miles around. Homes in a five-block radius were leveled. A middle school, apartment house and nursing home were nearly flattened. Fortunately, the school and plant were closed for the day. Still, hundreds were injured, and 14 people – including 12 first responders – were killed. In a town small enough for nearly everyone to know everybody else, no family was left unharmed.

The sheer size of the explosion has led to questions about what chemical fertilizer was manufactured and stored at the facility. In turn, the answer to that question indicates whether those killed and injured suffered as the result of a preventable workplace accident or deadly criminal action by the plant’s owners. Either way, a credible workplace safety inspection program likely would have uncovered and prevented this tragedy.

Workplace accidents, of course, happen all the time, but most could have been prevented if federal safety regulations were implemented. These regulations are drawn from calamitous past experience and are intended to avert specific risks. Nevertheless, some employers – inadvertently or willfully – fail to follow these guidelines. Because it is impossible to inspect all worksites, OSHA inspects as many as it can so that all employers face a credible risk of inspection and feel pressure to know their industry’s hazards and implement appropriate safety procedures.

However, for decades, federal and state inspection budgets have shrunk. In 1977, OSHA had 37 inspectors for every million workers; today, it has 22. This 40 percent reduction is further threatened by the current Sequestration and by austerity advocagtes and anti-regulatory agents in the Congress who assert that industry can better regulate itself. Given its current allocation of inspectors, it will take 137 years for OSHA to inspect each Texas jobsite.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the West Fertilizer Company was last inspected by OSHA 28 years ago (in 1985). Then, it was cited for a serious violation of anhydrous ammonia storage procedures (subsequently reduced to a serious violation of respiratory protection standards with a $30 fine).

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the company $2,600 for failure to update its risk management plan and poor employee training. Required to file an EPA report because of holding 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand, the company stated “no” under fire or explosive risks. Asked to describe its worst and second worst risk scenarios, the company identified a possible ten-minute ammonia gas leak with no risk of injuries or death and a possible broken transfer hose, again with no risk of injuries or death. That same year, after neighborhood reports of ammonia fumes, the Texas Commission on the Environment inspected the plant.

According to The Dallas Morning News, “Advisories on safe handling of anhydrous ammonia generally state that the chemical is not considered an explosion risk when in the air as a gas. They add, however, that it can explode in certain concentrations inside a container.”

It is not clear, however, whether the April 17 explosion was the result of contained anhydrous ammonia or the storage of ammonia nitrate. According to Reuters, citing an unnamed source in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a report filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) shows the plant had 270 tons of ammonia nitrate on hand in 2012. Although TDSHS is not required to share information with DHS and did not do so, under federal law any company or individual storing more than 400 pounds of ammonia nitrate must report to DHS. This is because ammonia nitrate is highly explosive and has been used in a number of serious domestic bombing incidents, including the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

Ammonia nitrate is a growing component of the nation’s agribusiness economy. Historically, anhydrous ammonia was the typical farm fertilizer. It is three parts hydrogen to one part nitrogen and is gaseous at room temperature and normal pressure. While it is dangerous to inhale, it has a sharp odor that alerts people to its presence. In order to be used as a fertilizer, it must be compressed into a liquid. It is transported by tankers and transferred to storage tanks at farms. Pulled by tractors, smaller tanks inject the liquid into the soil where it vaporizes and combines with moisture to provide nutrition for plant growth. Although extremely caustic if it is inhaled or comes in contact with skin, eyes or other mucous membranes, anhydrous ammonia is not generally explosive.

Ammonia nitrate is a far more convenient fertilizer because it is a dry solid at room temperature and normal pressure. As a fertilizer, it is spread directly into the soil. However, if heated or ignited, it is highly explosive, and in some cases, it is manufactured for explosive purposes. Ammonia nitrate is made from anhydrous ammonia gas by adding concentrated nitric acid, but the reaction is violent and gives off a great deal of heat. After the solution is formed, water is boiled off to the desired concentration. Then, a spray tower is used to form the solution into beads or a tumbler is used to form granules.

Currently, it is unknown what products and processes were in use at West, but while the Company may not have reported the storage of ammonia nitrate, the presence of so much – 1,375 times the reporting threshold – would have been uncovered by any routine OSHA or EPA inspection.

The explosion garnered the attention of President Obama who, along with the First Lady, took part in a memorial service on April 25, three days before the nation’s annual Workers’ Memorial Day. Federal investigators (OSHA, EPA, DHS and the Chemical Safety Board may be involved) are looking into the situation. This could result in citations, fines or criminal charges. In addition, since there are more than 6,000 fertilizer plants similar to West in the country and because of the confluence of workplace safety and homeland protection issues in their management, additional regulatory authority and rules could result. Further, the incident has lent credence to Obama’s budget proposal to increase funding for OSHA and renewed calls from workplace safety advocates for Congress to pass the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA).

[Steve Clark]

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