The chair of the Senate committee that investigated the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion yesterday slammed the EPA for failing to include ammonium nitrate – the substance which caused the fatal blast – in its list of hazardous chemicals that require oversight.
Fifteen people were killed in the April blast and hundreds were injured. With three then-unoccupied schools among the many buildings which were damaged or destroyed, the fatality rate could have been much higher if the incident had occurred during the day.
Ammonium nitrate is a reactive chemical used extensively in fertilizers and explosives. When heated or contaminated, ammonium nitrate can explode.
"It's not rocket science"
In a press conference, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said that given the federal government’s failure to take action since the explosion, states must ensure their own chemical safety.
“We know what has to be done,” said Boxer. “Ammonium nitrate has to be stored in a separate facility. It’s not rocket science here."
At a hearing held by Boxer on June 27, experts testified that inspections and stronger federal, local and state regulations could have prevented the blast.
Urging an anti-regulator to regulate
Boxer sent a letter to governors, include Texas’ Rick Perry -- who is known for his anti-regulatory policies -- urging them to adopt regulations that would ensure the safe storage of ammonium nitrate.
"I urge you to review the applicable requirements in your state, and in the interests of saving lives, adopt policies that you believe will prevent loss of life while allowing the use of ammonium nitrate with appropriate protections or the use of alternatives," wrote Boxer.
"People died here," she said. "This is not some bureaucratic mistake.”
Lack of an update is "inexcusable"
Boxer also criticized the EPA for not issuing recent warnings about reactive chemicals. “It’s inexcusable that EPA hasn’t updated their alerts since 1997 on this issue,” she said.
OSHA does require safe storage and management of ammonium nitrate, but the agency last inspected the West Fertilizer Co. facility, site of the blast, in 1985.
According to the CSB, the company stored large amounts of combustible material near wooden containers holding ammonium nitrate. The CSB said Texas and West does not require sprinkler systems or restrict the quantity of ammonium nitrate that can be in the vicinity of populated areas.
Company "had not volunteered" to follow fire code
CSB chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said at West, fire code provisions were strictly voluntary, “and West Fertilizer had not volunteered.”
Boxer promised a follow-up hearing in the fall on the subject of chemical safety.
The city of West, Texas, has filed a lawsuit against the West Fertilizer Co., along with the chemical company that supplied two 100-ton shipments of ammonium nitrate in the weeks before the deadly blast.
The suit against Adair Grain Inc. and CF Industries claims that the chemical shipments were improperly stored, leading to the deadly explosion. CF Industries is accused of failing to properly inspect the fertilizer mixing facility to determine whether hazard mitigation was necessary or to provide recommendations for safe storage.