Wednesday, April 24, 2013

15th person dies from West Fertilizer blast; some tried to warn of impending disaster

A 15th person has been confirmed dead from the April 17 blast at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in West, Tex., as new information emerges that watchdog agencies and organizations warned of potential problems at the facility, such as the 2,400 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate being stored on a site near schools, houses and a nursing home. (AP photo by Charlie Riedel: Cleanup continues.)

According to a November report by the Congressional Research Service, "the U.S. has about 90 facilities -- including chemical factories, refineries, water treatment plants or fertilizer depots -- that in a worst-case scenario would pose risks to more than a million people," Mark Drajem reports for Bloomberg News. "The calculations were based on the proximity of each plant to a population center as well as a 'worst-case release scenario,' such as an explosion or leak, that facility owners are required to report to the EPA."

"Environmental groups, unions and safety groups have pushed the U.S. to tighten oversight of chemical production and storage facilities, but they have never passed Congress," Drajem writes. "Instead, a patchwork of programs operates under separate departments, each with its own objectives, congressional oversight and constraints." (Read more)

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the state chemist’s office and possibly others, knew as early as 2006 that West was stowing 2,400 tons of ammonium nitrate, but all failed to raise any concerns, Randy Lee Loftis reports for The Dallas Morning News. Bryan W. Shaw, chairman for TCEQ, said, “We don’t evaluate the explosive threat associated with these types of facilities. We look at the environmental and health impacts,” such as whether routine air emissions will cause a local problem. "Even when processing environmental permits for companies handling ammonium nitrate, asking about fertilizer fire and explosion risks is not the TCEQ’s job," he said. 

No one seems to want to take responsibility for missing the warning signs at the West plant. "Experts not involved in the investigation said that the scenario — a routine fire getting out of control and superheating a container with a large volume of ammonium nitrate, widely used as a fertilizer and as an explosive — was easily predictable and probably preventable if anyone from any agency had discussed simple safeguards with the company," writes Loftis. (Read more)

We wrote about concerns about the plant's safety regulations.

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