The stockpile of ammonium nitrate at West Fertilizer Co. was well known to farmers and firefighters around West. The explosive potential of that fertilizer was well known to experts for decades, codified in national fire standards.
But nowhere in the years before the April 17 explosion that ravaged West were the dangers of that stockpile reported in local emergency plans.
The explosion that killed 15 people and wrecked 37 blocks has revealed gaps in the federally mandated system for planning for hazardous materials incidents.
It’s a system that tends to pass the burden of identifying and mitigating chemical hazards to the lowest jurisdictional level, often resource-poor volunteer fire departments such as West’s.
The Emergency Planning Right-to-Know Act of 1986 requires “community response plans” to identify chemical hazards in each county, modeling how a disaster would affect nearby populations.
A “Local Emergency Planning Committee” in each county is supposed to review the plan yearly and educate the public about the hazards.
McLennan County does have a volunteer LEPC — though it hasn’t met since 2011 — and it has a plan for hazardous materials, rolled into an all-purpose disaster plan.
But that plan has little information about site-specific chemical risks around the county or their impact.
Among the hundreds of pages of the McLennan County Emergency Plan is a passing mention of potential dangers at the West Fertilizer Co., but it refers only to tanks of anhydrous ammonia, which ended up surviving the ammonium nitrate explosion.
A countywide map of major chemical hazards included in an appendix to the 2012 plan doesn’t include West Fertilizer at all. The map is dated 2005, a year before the Environmental Protection Agency cited the company for failing to apply for a permit for the anhydrous ammonia.
It’s the responsibility of local fire departments in the county to identify specific risks in their own jurisdictions and prepare a plan to minimize those risks, said Frank Patterson, who oversees the planning process as coordinator of the Waco-McLennan County Office of Emergency Management.
“We have an interjurisdictional plan,” he said. “Every city is responsible for its portion.”
Patterson said his office, which is funded by the county and city of Waco, said the disaster plan worked well after the blast. Patterson has received praise from city, county and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials for his work as incident commander at the blast site.
But Patterson said his office does not require or review reports from local fire departments on chemical hazards in their communities. His office does receive federally mandated “Tier 2” reports from local facilities listing hazardous chemicals on hand, but it does not analyze those reports. State records show McLennan County has 251 facilities submitting Tier II reports.
West Mayor Tommy Muska, who is a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department, said he’s not aware that West has prepared any documents analyzing the chemical risks at West Fertilizer.
But he said that doesn’t mean that West firefighters were unprepared for the disaster.
“Everybody knew what was there,” he said. “We knew there were explosives there, that fire and fertilizer don’t mix.”
He said fire volunteers had toured West Fertilizer to familiarize themselves with hazards there.
Muska, who was heading to the scene when the blast occurred 20 minutes into the fire, said firefighters were hastily retreating from the area. He said he believes that’s because they knew of the fertilizer’s explosive potential.
At least 20 of West’s 29 firefighters had trained and gotten certification from the State Fireman’s and Fire Marshal’s Association in basic fire suppression. They would have been taught that oxidizers such as ammonium nitrate are capable of exploding under the right conditions, association officials said.
Also, the firefighters who were attacking the fire were wearing self-contained breathing devices to protect against toxic gases, whether from the ammonium nitrate or anhydrous ammonia, fire officials said.
But Associated Press interviews with first responders suggest that firefighters’ primary fear was a toxic release of anhydrous ammonia from the tanks near the fire.
Doreen Strickland, president of the Abbott Volunteer Fire Department, pulled up to the scene just as the plant exploded, killing three of her department’s men.
She said she had heard no reports of ammonium nitrate before the blast, but anhydrous ammonia “was a major concern.”
Likewise, Dr. George Smith, West’s EMS director, told the AP he was thinking about a lethal chemical cloud, not an explosion. He ran to the nursing home to move residents to the side away from the plant, placed damp towels in the doorways and prepared to turn off the air conditioning.
Access to technology
The West fire department did not have the advantage of a commonly used technology, called CAMEO, that allows firefighters mobile digital access to information about chemical storage sites.
In Waco, firefighters en route to an industrial incident can use the system to map out chemical storage sites within various industries and model the chemical plume based on current weather conditions, said Waco Fire Department Deputy Chief Gary Davis.
The Waco Fire Department also has a hazardous materials unit that serves a multicounty area, but Davis said Waco didn’t get the call for help until after the explosion, perhaps because West and Waco are on different radio systems.
He said he’s not sure whether help from Waco’s hazmat unit could have saved lives at West.
“I’m sure every one of those guys knew about ammonium nitrate, and the properties of that,” he said, referring to the West firefighters. “But it doesn’t mean it’s going to blow up right then. They were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”
David Horowitz, who is leading an investigation of the blast as managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said his agency still is trying to gauge how much firefighters knew about the risks of the fertilizer fire.
But just knowing about the ammonium nitrate and its risks might not have been enough to prevent the tragedy, Horowitz said.
His agency is studying the blast to determine lessons to be learned for other industries that handle ammonium nitrate. He said the guidelines for ammonium nitrate are somewhat vague and unevenly applied around the country.
Ammonium nitrate is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “extremely hazardous” material, so plants aren’t required to submit a plan to the EPA on how to prevent a disaster with the substance.
The EPA issued an alert about the dangers of ammonium nitrate in 1997, three years after a deadly ammonium nitrate explosion at the Terra fertilizer plant in Port Neal, Iowa. But the EPA did not accept the recommendations 10 years ago by the Chemical Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt new ammonium nitrate standards.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires companies to report ammonium nitrate stores but mostly focuses on keeping it out of the hands of bomb-making terrorists.
That leaves local agencies in charge of enforcing any standards on ammonium nitrate storage, Horowitz said.
The National Fire Protection Association code, which many cities and counties have adopted, regulates the storage of ammonium nitrate, requiring it to be separated from combustible material by a one-hour firewall. That could have made a difference in West, Horowitz said.
Horowitz said that at West Fertilizer Co., the open-topped ammonium nitrate bin inside the 13,000-square-foot storage building, was close to large quantities of seed that could catch on fire. The wooden bins were not prohibited under the code but could also have contributed to the explosion, Horowitz said.
The codes also put extra restrictions on facilities near residential areas and allow fire departments to require sprinkler systems, which the West facility did not have.
But Horowitz said enforcing those codes requires training and personnel that may be beyond the reach of small fire departments.
“Enforcement is always a challenge, and in the case of Texas, rural counties don’t apply these codes,” he said. “Even going into states and municipalities where a lot of these codes are adopted, local firefighters often are short-staffed, and code enforcement is something they don’t have a lot of training resources for.”
By contrast, the Waco Fire Department has both a fire marshal’s office and on-duty firefighters to tour facilities, inspect chemical storage, do disaster drills and ensure that industries have adequate sprinkler systems.
“It takes a lot of time and effort,” Davis said. “We’re lucky in Waco to have that.”
Waco Fire Department has a budget of $20 million, while West’s fire department raises about $10,000 year.
Fred Millar, a well-known emergency planning advocate based in Virginia, said many small volunteer fire departments don’t have the resources to do hazardous materials risk analysis. He said that’s why it’s important to have an active county-level Local Emergency Planning Committee that can work with the departments.
Millar, who contributed to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendment as an official with Friends of the Earth, said the idea of LEPCs was to raise public awareness about chemical risks, but many have been inactive.
He said McLennan County’s plan doesn’t appear to have adequate information for an LEPC to begin to share hazardous material information with the public. He said it should include blast zones and plume modeling for hazardous chemical releases.
McLennan County’s hazard map pinpoints “extremely hazardous” materials sites, with circles showing one- and two-mile radius zones where people might be affected.
“That’s very rudimentary — that’s lazy,” Millar said, adding that some chemical spills could affect an area 15 miles away.
“Like most places in the country, they’ve been lowballing the risks,” he said. “The people who dominate these LEPCs are almost entirely local government and industry, and their one core value is, ‘Let’s not alarm the public.’ ”
Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the West disaster should cause local governments to start communicating such hazards to the public. Duncan said it should also be a chance to look at how regional cooperation can be improved.
“I think what happened in West exposed some gaps we need to be proactive about,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.