Destruction in West, TX “almost beyond imagination”
CSB head testifies before Senate
Chairman Boxer, Senator Vitter, and distinguished Committee members – thank you for inviting me today.
The two explosions we are discussing today – West Fertilizer and Williams Olefins – are tragedies of the kind that should be prevented.
The destruction I personally saw in West – the obliteration of homes, schools, and businesses by an ammonium nitrate explosion – was almost beyond imagination. The loss of life was horrible.
The CSB has determined that ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. safety standards and guidance – a patchwork that has many large holes.
These holes include: the use of combustible wooden buildings and wooden storage bins, sprinklers generally not required, and no federal, state, or local rules restricting the storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate near homes, schools and hospitals.
Most Texas counties have no fire code
Voluntary fire codes have some useful provisions for ammonium nitrate. But Texas and most of its counties have no fire code. So at West, these fire code provisions were strictly voluntary, and West Fertilizer had not volunteered. Our investigators learned that combustible seeds were stored near the ammonium nitrate, not separated by any fire-resistant partition.
OSHA has some similar provisions for ammonium nitrate fertilizer in its Explosives standard, 1910.109. However, OSHA has not focused extensively on ammonium nitrate storage and hadn’t inspected West since 1985.
Other nations have gone much further than the U.S. on ammonium nitrate safety. The UK recommends dedicated, noncombustible storage buildings and noncombustible bins. The U.S. manufacturer, CF Industries, recommends the same and urges sprinklers as well.
But the fertilizer industry tells us that U.S. sites commonly store ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings and bins – even near homes, schools, or other vulnerable facilities. This situation must be addressed.
Preventing the risk of fire essentially eliminates the potential for an explosion like we saw in West, by removing one of the preconditions for detonation.
Facilities like West fall outside existing federal process safety standards, which were developed in the 1990’s and are list-based.
Risk Management Program not enough
Ammonium nitrate would likely have been included, if the EPA had adopted our 2002 recommendation to cover reactive chemicals under its Risk Management Program.
But the modestly sized RMP program is no panacea; it already covers large refineries and petrochemical sites – including Williams Olefins – and yet we still see serious accidents.
The Williams plant has over a hundred workers, producing ethylene and propylene.
On June 13, there was a catastrophic failure involving a heat exchanger and associated piping which broke loose from a distillation tower. The ensuing explosion led to the deaths of two employees. We join in mourning their loss.
It is too soon in our investigation to tell why the equipment failure occurred.
Regulations need to be modernized
The bigger picture in process safety is that EPA and OSHA resources are under duress. Regulations need to be modernized – but more inspection and prevention are needed as well.
Meantime, we are finding encouraging alternatives to the current situation:
Following the Chevron refinery fire last year, and acting upon CSB recommendations, California is poised to triple the number of dedicated process safety inspectors … funded by industry fees.
Another promising approach is the ‘safety case’– successfully used in other nations, which insurers say have much lower petrochemical accident rates than we do.
Companies identify and commit to follow the best safety standards from around the world, subject to approval and oversight by a competent, well-funded regulator. Many experts believe this is the best safety regime for complex, technological industries, rather than the U.S. system which calls upon a prescriptive and often outdated rule book.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today.