The weaknesses in chemical safety oversight and preparedness that allowed the West Fertilizer Co. explosion to occur still pose a risk to the public in Texas and beyond, federal investigators say in a report they will present in Waco on Thursday.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. at the Waco Hilton on its 265-page report, which stems from a nearly three-year investigation.
CSB officials investigated the causes of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion on April 17, 2013, which killed 15 people, injured 260 and damaged 150 buildings, with an estimated $246 million in property loss. They also recommend significant reforms to the way ammonium nitrate dealers are regulated and insured.
“This is one of the most destructive explosions we’ve ever investigated,” said Johnnie Banks, the CSB’s lead investigator in the West case, in an interview Tuesday.
“Our report found that the limited regulatory oversight, including the lack of real meaningful insurance, inadequate emergency planning and the proximity of the facility to so many homes — those really led to the incident’s severity.”
CSB chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland said pointing out shortcomings in the regulation and emergency preparedness systems is important to prevent another disaster, but it doesn’t excuse West Fertilizer Co.’s failure to prevent the explosion.
“The company ultimately bears the responsibility for following the law and building things safely,” Sutherland said in an interview.
The city of West has joined some 200 other plaintiffs in suing the owners of the plant, Adair Grain Co., along with national fertilizer suppliers. A trial involving some of those plaintiffs is set to begin next week.
The West disaster inspired some state-level reforms, including regular state fire marshal inspections of ammonium nitrate dealers and requirements to store the fertilizer away from flammable material.
But the CSB report suggests that those measures are not enough to keep the public safe. Texas alone has 43 facilities that sell 5 tons or more of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and 19 of those are within a half- mile of a school, hospital or nursing home.
“CSB analysis shows that risk to the public from a catastrophic incident exists at least within the state of Texas, if not more broadly,” the report states.
Ammonium nitrate is subject to explosion only when subjected to extreme heat, as well as confinement and shock. But the Texas State Fire Marshal has reported that the majority of ammonium nitrate fertilizer facilities in the state are of flammable frame construction, and legislators last year declined to require fireproof storage.
The CSB report recommends mandating fireproof storage and sprinkler systems through the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with a three-to-five-year phase-in for existing businesses.
The CSB also recommends that fertilizer dealers be required to file a risk management plan with the Environmental Protection Agency outlining how they will safely store ammonium nitrate.
In addition, national fire codes on ammonium nitrate should be stiffened, state-level training for emergency responders should be updated, and underwriting standards for insuring ammonium nitrate dealers should be beefed up, the report says.
The CSB board will vote Thursday to accept the report. The agency is small and has no direct regulatory authority, but it will follow up to make sure the findings are on the agenda of other federal and state agencies, Banks and Sutherland said.
Banks said the complexity of the investigation explains its long timeline. CSB investigators interviewed company officials and West residents, analyzed spilled fertilizer and blast remains, and even built a model of the West Fertilizer Co. to test detonation theories.
Though the cause of the fire remains undetermined, Banks said the data and analysis will help public safety experts assess the risk of ammonium nitrate for years to come.
Banks said he hopes the end result of the study will be to save lives.
“This was such a tragic human-interest story, happening in a town where everybody knows each other,” he said. “And the fact that this affected emergency responders resonated with us from the outset.”
Frank Patterson, who heads the Waco-McLennan County Office of Emergency Management, said he still is reading the report but agrees that better standards are needed for ammonium nitrate handling, including fireproof storage.
Patterson said the explosion destroyed the county’s only ammonium nitrate fertilizer facility, but better standards need to be in place in case one is built.
He said local officials have made progress on chemical safety and preparedness since the West disaster.
“The first responder community is much more aware, and industry in this county is aware and involved,” Patterson said. “We’re much more aware than three years ago.”