Nation & World

Texas facilities lacking sprinklers a year after fertilizer plant blast

One year after the fatal explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, just one of the nearly 100 facilities in Texas that store large amounts of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate is equipped with a fire-dampening sprinkler system, according to information obtained by The Austin American-Statesman.

And half of those facilities are made of combustible wood, which remains the norm for fertilizer storage facilities across the nation, according to state and federal officials.

Simply put, the principal conditions that allowed the massive explosion that killed 15 people in West persist, reflecting the slow pace of change, in Texas and across the country, over the past 365 days.

Government hearings have been held in Austin and Washington, D.C., listening sessions and working groups have been convened, and reams of reports have been issued. But concrete action so far has been scant.

It remains difficult, for example, for the public to learn what chemicals are stored near them or what risks they could pose to their communities.

And many of the Texas counties that are home to similar fertilizer plants remain prohibited by state law from adopting fire codes that would require enhanced safety measures such as sprinkler systems or noncombustible construction.

“From a state level, I would say the response has been unapologetically inadequate,” said Alex Winslow, executive director of the nonpartisan consumer advocacy group Texas Watch. “It’s sort of been lacking in any urgency. The solutions to heading off another disaster in the future are not rocket science.”

Critics have expressed similar frustration with slow-moving federal agencies.

After President Barack Obama issued an executive order in August demanding a re-examination of federal rules on ammonium nitrate, federal officials formed a working group made up of several agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which hadn’t inspected the West facility since 1985.

The group’s most recent report however, makes no mention of adopting a 12-year-old recommendation to include ammonium nitrate, the chemical that exploded with such disastrous results in West, in the EPA’s risk management plan program, which is meant to alert residents to potential dangers.

Nor is it clear if OSHA will expand its special inspection program for facilities with dangerous chemicals to include ammonium nitrate, as the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended several years before the West blast.

In March, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, tore into EPA administrators for their inaction in adding ammonium nitrate to its risk management program. “I don’t know why it’s taking so long for you to figure this out,” Boxer said during a March hearing. “I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t do it, given all the deaths we’ve seen.”

In addition to the 15 who died at West, including 12 first responders, nearly 300 people were injured. Dozens of buildings, including a nursing home and several schools, were destroyed. The site of the fertilizer plant explosion has since been razed and encircled with a chain-link fence. Wrecked neighborhoods surrounding the plant are being rebuilt, and damaged schools have been leveled, with plans to replace them by 2016. Multiple plaintiffs have filed suit against the Adair family-owned plant, which maintained just $1 million in liability insurance. The blast caused 200 times more damage than that.

Yet a year after 30 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in a massive fireball, the causes of the disaster remain unclear.

Investigators say that at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, which was built half a century ago, ammonium nitrate was stored in wooden bins near highly combustible seed in a building without sprinklers.

A month-long investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Fire Marshal’s Office didn’t uncover the cause of the initial fire at the plant, which remains undetermined. But the cause of the fire is only a small part of the puzzle: ammonium nitrate doesn’t normally explode when it catches fire; it requires additional conditions such as confinement, shock or chemical contamination to detonate.

Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is charged with determining the cause of the subsequent explosion, complained that by the time the scene was released to it, “there wasn’t much left to investigate.” According to the agency’s reports to Congress, the ATF removed evidence “that might show signs of how the material became sensitized to explosion.”

According to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the explosion occurred after debris from the burning building fell on the heated ammonium nitrate, causing it to detonate.

The Chemical Safety Board, however, has been less definitive in its conclusions so far. Horowitz said the exact cause of the blast “remains somewhat elusive.” But he said that shouldn’t stop officials from taking action.

“The bottom line is that we do have a good understanding of how to prevent future (disasters),” Horowitz said. “If the ammonium nitrate had been kept away from fire, if it had been in a dedicated, noncombustible storage container, this simply is not going to happen.”

Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy this week recommended that all facilities that store large amounts of ammonium nitrate either be equipped with sprinkler systems or be made of noncombustible materials, such as metal, stone or concrete, and suggested that facility owners be given three years to retrofit their buildings.

Officials said that sprinkler systems might be costly to install in areas without reliable water service. In such areas, water tanks and pump systems could be installed to replace water lines, or owners could construct a new building, Connealy said.

It’s unclear if the Legislature will take that step, which would give famously regulation-wary Texas some of the nation’s toughest local rules on ammonium storage.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, the Democrat who chairs the Texas House committee investigating the West disaster, said he plans to file a bill requiring sprinklers or new construction, but wouldn’t push for a broader statewide fire code, which he said would likely face stiffer resistance.

“I don’t think it’s too onerous on the businesses,” Pickett said of the proposed requirement. “If you’ve been using a wooden lean-to for the last 30 years it’s time to update.”

While some legislators have worried that small businesses would be harmed by the regulations, most fertilizer blenders in the state are owned by the El Dorado Chemical Co., a subsidiary of a $700 million, publicly traded corporation based in Oklahoma.

Texas is one of four states that lack such a statewide code, according to a 2013 American-Statesman analysis. Texas law goes even further, prohibiting fire codes except in counties with more than 250,000 residents or those adjacent to such large counties. Political enthusiasm for changing that has been flaccid: A statewide fire code bill died in the 2013 legislative session in the weeks after the blast amid concerns about extending regulation to rural Texas.

The Legislature doesn’t meet again until January.

Outside the Capitol, the fire marshal’s office has inspected the state’s 96 ammonium nitrate storing facilities and recommended changes to owners. But the office doesn’t have the authority to require them. Officials couldn’t say this week how many, if any, facilities had adopted the voluntary recommendations.

The fertilizer industry has also announced a system of self-inspections, called Responsible Ag, in which facilities would be evaluated for their compliance with federal laws regarding ammonium nitrate storage. Those laws, however, don’t require noncombustible storage or sprinklers. An industry spokeswoman said the industry didn’t have an opinion on Connealy’s recommendations.

“Right now, the focus of the program is to make sure retailers comply with every federal regulation,” said Kathy Mathers, spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute. “Let’s knock that down (before looking at) best practices.”

Connealy said he isn’t seeking to put too much regulatory burden on fertilizer businesses. “We are not trying to put them out of business, just the opposite,” Connealy told the House committee this week. “That said, there has to be some changes if you want to prevent another West.”