The U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Thursday prescribed ways to prevent another explosive catastrophe like the one that devastated West in April 2013, while lamenting that its past prescriptions went unheeded.
“The fire and explosion did not have to happen,” CSB chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland said in a news conference before a public meeting Thursday in Waco, where it adopted a 265-page report on the disaster. “Part of our job is to ensure that incidents like this do not happen again.”
Among many recommendations, the 265-page report calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the fertilizer responsible for the blast, ammonium nitrate, as an “extremely hazardous” substance.
Had the EPA adopted that policy when the CSB originally urged it in 2002, West Fertilizer Co. would have had to submit a risk management plan to the EPA on its ammonium nitrate storage. That might have resulted in fireproof storage or other safeguards that could have prevented the loss of 15 lives, many more injuries and $246 million in property damage.
“The CSB has investigated too many runaway explosions,” Sutherland said. “Had regulators acted on these recommendations earlier, (the explosion) might have been prevented. Following this incident, it’s particularly important that the EPA act to strengthen risk management.”
The CSB’s report also calls for new Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards requiring fireproof storage of ammonium nitrate and for stronger underwriting standards for insuring such facilities. CSB officials said another solution could be adding inert materials such as chalk or gypsum to ammonium nitrate to render it less explosive, though more testing is needed.
CSB officials Thursday said other Texas communities remain at risk of ammonium nitrate disasters, despite recent improvements in state policies for inspections and fire training.
The three Texas ammonium nitrate facilities destroyed by fire since 2009 have all been of wood construction, and state officials say the majority of the remaining facilities also are constructed with wood.
Meanwhile, 19 of Texas’ remaining ammonium nitrate fertilizer handlers are within half a mile of a school, nursing home or health facility.
CSB officials said they will begin work soon on an in-depth study of land use around industrial chemical facilities, including those handling ammonium nitrate.
CSB officials also pinpointed failures in local emergency planning and response, a tricky subject given that 12 emergency responders died in the blast. The team found that West Volunteer Fire Department officials were unprepared for an ammonium nitrate explosion, having focused instead on anhydrous ammonia tanks at West Fertilizer. Firefighters had not been trained in lessons learned from prior ammonium nitrate fires, such as the one in Bryan-College Station in 2009, which demonstrated the wisdom of evacuating the area and allowing the plant to burn. And firefighters did not have an incident command system set up that would have allowed a coordinated retreat, CSB officials said.
“Firefighters were going in doing what they were trained to do — going in when others were going out,” CSB lead investigator Johnnie Banks said. “We don’t assign blame for these outcomes. It’s not about what anyone did right or wrong, but what systems failed these men and contributed to the severity of the event.”
Among those attending the meeting was Phil Calvin, fire chief of Navarro Mills Volunteer Fire Department and father of firefighter Perry Calvin, who died in the West disaster.
Calvin met with the CSB the previous day and saw a realistic animation of the disaster, which he said was almost unbearable to watch. He said he thought the CSB did a “heck of a job” with the investigation, but he thought the report was unfair to firefighters, who he said didn’t have enough time or manpower to set up a command structure.
“Only five of those firefighters were from West,” Calvin told the board. “The others didn’t have any way to communicate with the West Volunteer Fire Department.”
Chemical engineering professor Sam Mannan, head of Texas A&M University’s Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center, told the board that the investigation is solid, but he worries it will be ignored.
“Sadly, these incidents keep occurring, and lessons are never learned,” Mannan said. “This was a tragedy that could have and should have been avoided. It seems to me we’re watching the same movie again and again.”
Mannan called for the creation of a nationwide chemical incidents surveillance system and databases that would help regulators track problems in the chemical industry.