The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) last week voted on its final report and safety recommendations on the April 17, 2013, West Fertilizer fire and explosion in West, Texas, which resulted in 15 fatalities, more than 260 injuries, and widespread community damage. The deadly fire and explosion occurred when about thirty tons of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) exploded after being heated by a fire at the storage and distribution facility.
At a meeting, the investigative team presented its findings and recommendations as well as a 3D animation showing the events leading up to the incident.
One of most destructive explosions
CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said, “This is one of the most destructive explosions ever investigated by the CSB. The CSB’s report found that limited regulatory oversight, poor hazard awareness, inadequate emergency planning, and the proximity of the facility to nearby homes and other buildings all led to the incident’s severity. The proposed safety recommendations address steps needed to help prevent a similar tragedy in the future.”
The CSB determined that FGAN storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. safety standards and guidance – a patchwork that has many large gaps. These gaps include a lack of adequate federal, state or local oversight on FGAN storage and handling and the permitted use of combustible wooden buildings and wooden storage bins.
EPA, OSHA need to expand regulations
At the federal level, neither the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adequately address FGAN in their existing regulation of highly hazardous chemicals. EPA does not cover FGAN under its Risk Management Program (RMP) rule, and OSHA does not cover FGAN under its Process Safety Management (PSM) standard or clearly identify coverage of FGAN in its Explosives and Blasting Agents Standard.
The CSB recommends to EPA that they cover FGAN under their RMP program and that OSHA cover FGAN under PSM or revise its Explosives and Blasting Agents Standard to clearly identify FGAN hazards– either option would address conditions that likely resulted in the West Fertilizer incident such as the safe storage of FGAN, construction materials, and fire suppression systems. Additionally, existing facilities should be required to phase in replacement of bins constructed of combustible material – such as wood – with noncombustible material.
CSB Lead Investigator Johnnie Banks said, “As a result of its findings, the CSB calls on both OSHA and EPA to strengthen their regulations to protect the public from hazards posed by fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate.”
Many dangerous facilities near schools
The CSB’s final report finds that there are more than 1,300 facilities across the country that store FGAN, forty of those are in Texas and nearly half are located within half a mile of a school, nursing home or hospital. Eighty-three percent of those facilities are located within a quarter mile of a residence.
The CSB is also making recommendations to the International Code Council to develop a chapter for fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate in the International Fire Code. This should include requirements for new and existing facilities storing ammonium nitrate to prevent the conditions that lead to the uncontrollable fire and explosion. CSB also found that lessons learned from previous FGAN incidents were not effectively communicated to emergency responders in other communities where the chemical is stored.
Lead Investigator Johnnie Banks said, “Overall, the CSB’s investigation found that training and reference materials did not adequately inform emergency responders about the potential for FGAN to detonate in a fire.”
Therefore, CSB recommends that both career and volunteer firefighter associations in Texas establish minimum criteria for training and conduct outreach to firefighters and emergency response organizations across the state.
Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland said, “CSB’s goal is to ensure that no one else be killed or injured due to a lack of awareness of hazardous chemicals in their communities. If adopted, the board’s recommendations can help prevent disasters like the one in West, Texas.”
CLICK HERE to view the full report
CLICK HERE to download the CSB’s animation