DALLAS (CN) – The deadly fertilizer explosion that flattened parts of West, Texas should have been prevented with better oversight by regulatory authorities, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said .
An independent federal agency tasked with investigating chemical accidents, the CSB issued its preliminary findings Tuesday after its year-long investigation of the April 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer Company.
The explosion “never should have occurred,” CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said Tuesday at a news conference.
“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,” he said.
The CSB said “all levels of government” failed to adopt regulations to keep populated areas away from hazardous facilities, and not just in West.
It found there are no fire codes at the state level and that some counties with low populations are prohibited from having them.
“We found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate,” CSB Supervisory Investigator Johnnie Banks said. “Farm communities are just starting to collect data on how close homes or schools are to AN [ammonium nitrate] storage, but there can be little doubt that West is not alone and that other communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity
A “patchwork” of federal and state regulations had “huge gaps” that resulted in the explosion, Banks said.
The CSB said that lessons learned from previous ammonium nitrate explosions were not passed on to West firefighters, who were not aware of the explosion hazard at the plant.
The CSB also noted that while U.S. standards for ammonium nitrate have “remained static” for decades, other countries have more stringent standards on storage and proximity to nearby buildings.
“For example, the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive states in guidance dating to 1996 that ‘ammonium nitrate should normally be stored in single story, dedicated, well-ventilated buildings that are constructed from materials that will not burn, such as concrete, bricks or steel,'” the agency said in a statement. “The U.K. guidance calls for storage bays ‘constructed of a material that does not burn, preferably concrete.”’
Moure-Eraso said ammonium nitrate is “ironically” not classified as an explosive, and that the CSB recommended in 2002 that such reactive chemicals be included in OSHA’s process safety management regulations and in the EPA’s risk management program.
“Had regulators acted on our recommendations sooner, there would have been additional requirements for safer handling and storage and the accident might have been prevented,” he said.
Moure-Eraso said voluntary compliance cannot be relied on.
“Regulations need to be updated and new ones put in place. The state of Texas, McLennan County, OSHA and the EPA have work to do, because this hazard exists in hundreds of locations across the U.S.,” he said.
“However, it is important to note that there is no substitute for an efficient regulatory system that ensures that all companies are operating to the same high standards.”
Moure-Eraso urged regulators to impose measures such as storing less explosive material at any one time, using less-explosive blends of chemicals and storing them in dedicated, fireproof concrete structures instead of wooden bins.
Adair Grain, operators of the West Fertilizer Company, has been sued at least 16 times in McLennan County Court since the explosion. One suit, filed by the City of West , claims that part of a 30-ton stockpile of ammonium nitrate was heated to the point of detonation, resulting in an explosion that felt like a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.
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