City of West sues fertilizer company, ammonium nitrate supplier

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Posted: Saturday, June 22, 2013 12:01 am

A week after federal authorities rejected the city of West’s request for funds to rebuild schools and infrastructure damaged in the April 17 explosion, the city filed a lawsuit against West Fertilizer Co. and the supplier of the volatile ammonium nitrate.

The city’s suit, filed Friday, seeks unspecified damages and alleges product liability and negligence against CF Industries, which supplied agricultural grade ammonium nitrate manufactured at their plant in 
Yazoo City, Miss., to West 
Fertilizer.

The suit also names Adair Grain, owner of West Fertilizer, and claims the company was negligent in the manner it stored the ammonium nitrate.

Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for Adair Grain, said the company had not seen the lawsuit and declined comment. Dan Swenson, a spokesman for CF Industries, also declined comment on the lawsuit Friday.

“The city of West has suffered a lot of damage to its infrastructure, and if those who are accountable for that damage are not held responsible, then there will be generations of taxpayers in West who are,” said Waco attorney Stephen E. Harrison, who is representing the city of West along with Zona Jones of the Provost Umphrey law firm of Beaumont.

The lawsuit filed Friday is the 11th filed in McLennan County involving damages associated with the explosion, which killed 15 people, injured 200 others and destroyed or damaged more than 350 homes.

Structural damage was reported as far away as Abbott, about seven miles, and schools, a nursing home and an apartment complex also were destroyed or heavily damaged.

This is the first lawsuit to name a defendant other than West Fertilizer Co.

“To this point, every lawyer that has been filing suits has been focusing on West Fertilizer,” Harrison said. “We think there are others who are also responsible, and thus far in our investigation, we believe that CF Industries manufactured and sold the ammonium nitrate and had the most superior knowledge about the dangers of that product, and so we have named them in the lawsuit.”

Harrison said his firm also represents businesses, injured West residents and families of those killed in the blast.

Law firms

West City Attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr. said the city voted to hire the Harrison and the Umphrey law firms at a specially called city council meeting 
June 14.

“I think the city took the action they thought they needed to protect the citizens and the city,” Reaves said.

The Provost Umphrey law firm is a heavy hitter among the nation’s plaintiffs’ law firms. Walter Umphrey and his wife, Sheila, have donated millions to Baylor University.

The law school is named for them, as will be a new pedestrian bridge over the Brazos River that connects the campus to Baylor’s new football stadium.

Harrison’s firm has handled mass tort cases, such as asbestos and silicone implant liability claims, and wrongful death and transportation accident litigation.

The lawsuit says CF Industries sold West Fertilizer 100-ton shipments of ammonium nitrate in both March and April. At the time of the explosion, the April shipment remained in a railcar on a rail spur just north of the fertilizer mixing building.

The March railcar shipment, also 100 tons, was unloaded and stored inside two wooden “stall-type bins” inside the fertilizer mixing building.

The lawsuit says it is estimated that more than 
30 tons from the March shipment had not been sold and was inside the building at the time of the explosion.

Claiming negligence

The suit claims that CF Industries was negligent because it was aware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate and failed to inspect the facilities at West Fertilizer to determine if “hazard mitigation” was needed. Also, CF did not make recommendations about the safe storage of its product, the suit contends.

“Instead, they blindly sold hundreds of tons of hazardous ammonium nitrate to West Fertilizer Company and delivered it to a facility located within a community of people, houses, parks, schools and a nursing home,” the lawsuit states.

The suit also alleges that CF Industries was negligent by failing to provide a required, current material safety data sheet to West Fertilizer with either of its large shipments in March or April.

“In fact, the CF Industries ammonium nitrate MSDS in use at the time of the explosion was outdated and made reference to standards that were superseded in June 2012,” the suit alleges. “The CF Industries did not correct their MSDS for ammonium nitrate until a week after the explosion in West.”

West Fertilizer Co. was negligent, according to the lawsuit, in the manner in which it stored and maintained the ammonium 
nitrate.

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