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State considers safer storage of fertilizer involved in West blast

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Posted: Monday, April 14, 2014 12:48 pm

State legislators are considering requiring fertilizer dealers to store ammonium nitrate in fireproof bins or install fire sprinkler systems to avert another disaster like the April 2013 West explosion.

“We will be looking at how to go forward to keep these situations from happening again,” said State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, during a hearing Monday.

Pickett expects to draft legislation by the end of summer for the next legislative session in early 2015.

At the committee’s request following the West disaster, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has inspected and reinspected most of the state’s 100 or so ammonium nitrate facilities on a voluntary basis.

State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said that about half the ammonium nitrate facilities were storing the chemical in wood-frame buildings as West Fertilizer Co. did.

The chemical becomes explosive when exposed to heat, shock and organic impurities, and Connealy said it’s too much of a risk to store it in flammable buildings.

“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” he said.

He suggested that the state adopt national fire code standards that call for fireproof storage or sprinklers for ammonium nitrate, giving dealers three years to comply.

“The only way to prevent another West is to have these (standards),” he said.

Pickett and other committee members responded positively to the recommendation and also discussed improvements to firefighter training, community disaster planning and reporting of hazardous chemicals. Also, Pickett wants to give the fire marshal primary inspection and enforcement authority for ammonium nitrate.

Pickett asked Texas insurance commissioner Julia Rathgeber about the possibility of mandating minimum liability insurance for fertilizer dealers. West Fertilizer Co. carried only $1 million in insurance but caused more than $200 million in damage, officials estimate.

Rathgeber replied it’s rare for the Legislature to demand insurance, with auto liability insurance an exception.

Rathgeber didn’t recommend such a requirement, saying the West blast has already caused private insurance underwriters to take a closer look at fertilizer facility safety.

Pickett said he didn’t plan to draft legislation for a statewide fire code, saying he wanted to keep a narrower focus, but he welcomed others to take up that cause.

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