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New Developments in the West Fertilizer Plant Explosion Investigation

June 8, 2016

breaking-news.jpgI wrote a piece about the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, TX shortly after it took place in 2013, and then a follow up last year concerning the investigation findings and deficiencies in the regulatory enforcement of hazardous chemical storage. The explosion was caused by a fire that ignited 270 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the facility, killing 15 people (3 plant workers and 12 emergency responders) and injuring well over 200 at the site and in the surrounding area.

The force of the blast was equivalent to a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, leaving a 93-foot wide crater and destroying hundreds of homes and buildings. In the midst of multiple lawsuits and federal investigations, the West plant has since closed and locals are rebuilding the town in hopes of returning their lives to normalcy. However, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has revealed a shocking twist to this story that may keep it in the news for some time.

On May 11, federal officials announced that the explosion was caused by a criminal act; specifically, the fire that ignited the chemical stockpile was intentionally set. In coming to this conclusion, the ATF conducted a thorough investigation of the incident, including spending over $2 million on a re-enactment of the fire with life-size replicas of sections of the plant performed at a research laboratory in Maryland, interviewing over 400 individuals, and analyzing evidence at the site, photos, and video. This has ruled out all potential accidental and natural causes of the fire, though no timeline has been set for the release of the final report. Furthermore, as of now neither the motive nor any suspects have been identified. The ATF is offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the individual who started the fire.

In January, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a report detailing a number of factors that contributed to the explosion and subsequent devastation of the surrounding area, including:

  • Improper storage of ammonium nitrate near combustible materials

  • Lack of ventilation in the storage area

  • Subpar fire protection systems (i.e., lacking sprinkler systems)

  • Inadequate hazmat emergency response training

  • Flawed emergency response procedures (e.g., no incident command center)

  • Lack of safety inspections

  • Weak government regulations of chemical storage

  • Poor land planning (i.e., residential and commercial development around the plant)

The report notes that steps could have been taken by regulatory agencies at all levels of government to make the explosion less likely. In addition, it recommends a variety of measures that should be taken to reduce the chances that a similar explosion occurs at another plant, such as improved firefighter training for dealing with hazardous chemicals, installing sprinkler systems anywhere that a fire could start, and banning the storage of ammonium nitrate in combustible structures. However, this Board has no enforcement power over industry regulation, so it can only present its findings and provide suggestions for agencies like OSHA to incorporate in official regulations. The full report can be found by clicking here.

Despite the discovery that this incident began from an intentional act, it still highlights many areas of concern for employee safety. Although now fewer Texas businesses sell ammonium nitrate fertilizer, tons of the chemical are still housed across the state in plants near communities just like West, and it is likely that similar situations would be found all over the country. In response to the West explosion, President Obama issued an order for improved regulation of the chemical industry, but unfortunately it has not gained much traction and we are now unclear as to the future of this effort as he will be leaving office soon.

Two things are clear:

  1. We need more uniform guidelines for the regulation and inspection of plants that store dangerous chemicals

  2. Plant management must improve conditions at their sites to reduce the potential for another disastrous event such as this

This certainly presents an opportunity for leaders at all levels in the industry to display strong Safety Leadership by taking initiative, speaking up about issues and acting to reduce these types of risks as quickly as possible.

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Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.