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How we prevent another West ammonium nitrate explosion: Q&A with U.S. Chemical Safety Board

  • 9 min to read

The burned-out shell of a car sits amid ruins after the West Fertilizer Company ammonium nitrate explosion of April 17, 2013, leaving 15 dead and more than 260 injured.

In January, the Tribune-Herald published the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s findings and recommendations regarding storage of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate after a 2½-year study of the fire at and explosion of the West Fertilizer Company. The blast left 15 people dead (12 of them first responders) and more than 260 injured; it destroyed or seriously damaged homes, schools and a nursing home — more than 150 buildings in all — in West, population 2,800. Before the board’s formal report to the public (but after privately reporting to family members of the dead), Trib opinion editor Bill Whitaker and veteran staff writer J.B. Smith sat down to discuss the findings with Chemical Safety Board Chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland and lead investigator Johnnie Banks. They discussed the importance of construction materials in facilities housing ammonium nitrate; how the tragedy of West influenced Texas firefighters in a potentially deadly ammonium nitrate fire a year later; and whether the fertilizer industry is doing enough to stress safety.

Q    In 2013, we saw and heard state, federal and local officials pay homage to the dead of West. In the view of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in its strictly advisory capacity, do the actions of state and federal lawmakers and agencies since then fully acknowledge these losses in terms of reforming safety standards?

Johnnie Banks As we’ve teased out particulars of this case, we’ve looked at various contributing causes. One was the regulatory regime. We think the way we’ve fleshed out the issues of oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and [its Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals standard] or blast standard — that they should have a hand in common-sense remedies, such as buildings being constructed of noncombustible materials and buildings being subject to regular inspections. We’ve fleshed out issues of insurance and training [to detect potentially hazardous problems]. As the chairwoman has said, this all involves shared responsibility.

Q    One night I was with State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy and the volunteer firefighters of Bosque County. He was giving a lecture months after the West explosion. At one point he told firefighters, “You know, if we had just had a sprinkler system in there, it almost certainly would have prevented the explosion, loss of life and widespread property damage.” Is that a credible assessment?

Banks    You can make a case for sprinklers in the facility, but there’s a concern that if there’s leaks in the system it could cause some problems for the ammonium nitrate.

Q    I don’t understand.

Banks    If there’s leakage, it could cause spoilage of the ammonium nitrate.

Q    And make it more volatile as a chemical?

Vanessa Sutherland Not make it more volatile but make it more unusable to sell and use in the fields.

Q    I guess I don’t understand. We have a sprinkler system here at the newspaper and haven’t had a problem with leaks. Is that a real concern?

Banks     I’m not discounting the role a sprinkler system would have. I hope I’m not advocating that such a thing wouldn’t have been effective. The fire marshal there is viewing that as a means that would have prevented the fire from getting beyond the incipient stage that it got. Speaking to the families [of the West dead] last night, there was some concern about sprinkler systems in or around ammonium nitrate storage facilities. It doesn’t mean that sprinklers couldn’t have minimized the advance of the fire. You had ordinary combustible materials there which water would have tended to keep from getting beyond a certain stage. You can make a case for the utility of sprinklers — absolutely — but there are other means of mitigating—

Q    OK, so what is the most important preventative safeguard in Johnnie Banks’ view? I always thought it was sprinklers, but maybe that’s because of the time I’ve spent around firefighters. You were out there in West for weeks and saw the consequences. What is one thing that could prevent this next time?

Banks    The Bryan, Texas, facility, after it burned down [in 2009], they rebuilt it and used noncombustible materials. They used concrete and brick. [The El Dorado Chemical Company incurred some $1 million in damage after a welder’s spark ignited the ammonium nitrate stored in the warehouse. Though there was no explosion, the Bryan incident saw more than 50 people seek out medical treatment and thousands evacuated. The warehouse facility was subsequently rebuilt as a concrete dome.] And that won’t burn. And while that doesn’t give you absolute assurance that something won’t happen, it minimizes the likelihood of a West-type event.

Q    By the way, how did the families respond when you met privately with them to go over the report?

Banks    They were appreciative of our making time for them in advance. We’re sensitive to the fact that a lot of these families are still in the process of mourning and healing and that realization there’s a void there forever. And that was conveyed to us.

Q    Was there one question that kept bubbling up during this meeting?

Sutherland    One question that seemed to resonate was whether we, as the CSB, were proposing a ban on FGAN [fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate] or saying fertilizer was just inherently horrible. And so I think we got an opportunity to explain that we were really just trying to share (ideas about how) storage and handling of it could be more useful. We did get a couple of comment/questions in succession: “Well, what do we do now as a community? What do we do about the types of companies we still have here? What do we know about product stewardship? Where do we go to get information?”

Q    You mean companies in West that aren’t even necessarily connected with ammonium nitrate?

Sutherland    Just in general.

Q    I’d say that’s a healthy skepticism.

Banks     There was also some sense that we had maligned some of the firefighters for contributing to their demise and we were able to provide them a foundation of how our cases are brought to closure and how, over the course of this investigation, we didn’t stop with the actions of the firefighters and why they took the actions they did. There was just a lack of awareness, a lack of training, but nothing they did was off the scale (in terms of irresponsibility) so the families generally took some comfort in that. [The 264-page CSB report, dedicated to the 15 blast victims who died, acknowledges that the West firefighters were in the process of debating pulling back when the explosion occurred.]

Q    The Chemical Safety Board report indicated West firefighters didn’t conduct pre-incident preparation or response training involving this facility. If there’s one thing that might aid volunteer fire departments — and we have a lot of them in our area — what would it be?

Sutherland    With ammonium nitrate? Unpredictability. It could explode, it could just do nothing. The characteristics of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate are unpredictable. You can’t assume that just because you’ve treated one fire involving fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate that it will perform in the very same way in another incident in yet another facility.

Q    So, again, what’s the best course a fire department can take in that case — to douse the fire with water or just clear the area and let it burn out, given that the fire might end in explosion?

Banks    The case in Athens, Texas, about a year afterward is a classic case of what to do. The chief [Athens Fire Chief John McQueary] had gone to that facility [Texas Ag Supply] beforehand, after the West incident, surveyed it, saw that there was some material inside the building that wasn’t good to have in proximity to the ammonium nitrate, so he had them move that outside. The structure of the building, if there was a fire, lent itself to such a situation that it wouldn’t collapse in one fell swoop (possibly causing an explosion) but would just kind of slowly cave in. And when he got wind that there was actually a fire at the facility [on May 29, 2014], he ordered his guys to stand down, pull back and evacuate to a perimeter. That is the prudent approach involving ammonium nitrate fires — just pull back and allow the building to burn to the ground and come back to live another day.

Q    You’re saying West was a learning experience for Athens firefighters?

Banks    The chief said, “Yeah, we paid attention to what happened in West.” When he had the chance, he made a point to take his guys through there so they could do some pre-planning and see where things were [at the Athens facility]. There were some trouble areas that they made go away and there were some electrical issues that they had them correct, so both pro-actively he went in and did some things and then during the actual incident, as it was happening, he had the presence of mind to not only work with his guys but the police department to clear the perimeter and alert others. Sure, some folks were displaced from their homes for a while but there was no damage, no explosion. Time is important. We saw in the West case that from the first time the fire was noticed and phoned in — well, 20 minutes later it wasn’t on the planet anymore and 15 lives were gone. We looked at a wide range of events from almost a century ago moving forward and if there’s one constant in all of those events, it’s that there’s no predictable response with ammonium nitrate.

Q    Your report gets into land use. We’ve heard how the West Fertilizer Company set up in the early 1960s outside the town of West. When the April 17, 2013, explosion occurred, it was surrounded by homes and schools. Did zoning just fall apart as the town grew over time? You note there are 19 other Texas facilities storing more than 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate within a half-mile of a school or a hospital or a nursing home.

Banks    And I would guess in those 19 instances there was once upon a time an ammonium nitrate facility that was there by itself and that the land around it was affordable and residences and hospitals and schools just came into proximity. That’s certainly the tale of the tape in West. You see the evolution from a time when there was nothing out there and then a smattering of houses and then, pardon the pun, an explosion of housing, schools, nursing homes and apartments. And they coexisted peacefully for years and years. A lady approached us this morning with pictures of her house after the event. It was repairable but pretty devastating. And she said, “You know, we just never knew how bad this stuff could be.”

Q    You said that in 2002 the Chemical Safety Board recommended the Environmental Protection Agency start regulating ammonium nitrate as an extremely hazardous substance and the EPA never acted. If the EPA had done that, the West Fertilizer Company would have had to do remediation plans involving ammonium nitrate similar to what they’ve done for anhydrous ammonia. Someone presumably with the EPA — a federal employee — would have had to sign off on that plan to say the West Fertilizer Company was storing this chemical in an appropriate way for a business that is next to a lot of schools and houses. Right?

Banks    There’s a reasonable presumption there would be a risk management plan that would develop.

Q    Your report notes the fertilizer company and its insurer kind of left themselves open in terms of liability. The fertilizer company lost an earlier insurer because the insurer concluded the company wasn’t willing to implement certain safety measures. And the next insurance company reportedly didn’t perform any safety inspections. You can have all the agencies in the world working in terms of industry oversight, but isn’t this really an industry problem? How serious is the agriculture industry about fixing all this? How satisfied are you that the Fertilizer Institute is taking this very seriously, as they claim?

Banks    The impetus for it was a tragic event and, to their credit, they did implement some new practices, but the proof is in the pudding.

Sutherland    They’ve said they are supportive of many of the general recommendations that they knew were coming out of our report, things that would help people identify the risks and understand possible root causes. Johnnie is right. The proof will be in the pudding. The ResponsibleAg program is up and running, they can move a lot faster than regulatory agencies, and nobody wants to have their company subject to bankruptcy, civil and criminal litigation and a potentially devastated town. [ResponsibleAg, a nonprofit, says its mission is “assisting agri-businesses as they seek to comply with federal environmental, health, safety and security rules regarding the safe handling and storage of fertilizer products.”]

Q    Well, I watched testimony in Austin involving two Texas House bills to establish reforms in oversight and storage of ammonium nitrate in the wake of the West blast. One fellow representing the agri-business industry told legislators he was worried about sprinklers being required for businesses with stockpiles of ammonium nitrate. He said that was too much of an expense to incur. Is that a legitimate concern? I mean, he sure got his way in the legislation passed in 2015.

Sutherland    I don’t know how expensive sprinklers are, but I would think that the loss of 15 lives and hundreds of millions of dollars, ongoing injuries and trauma to more than 260 people, the reputation of the industry and the reputation of the specific company that has had a catastrophic incident — there’s a cost to that too. I have to imagine the sprinkler system is cheaper.

Q    So what is your opinion of the reform bill by state Rep. Kyle Kacal and state Sen. Brian Birdwell that prevailed in the Texas Legislature? Is it a good law in terms of real reform?

Banks    I’d be loathe to say it was just lip service. I believe that, in the hearts and minds of the folks who crafted that bill, they believe they were doing all the right things for all the right reasons. It’s all in the receptors of the people who are on the business end of it to say, “Well, we want the Texas Environmental Quality Commission to be more attentive to monitoring Tier II reporting [disclosing where hazardous chemicals are stored]. All the various actors who have a role to play — that’s who we’re speaking to. It’s all about shared responsibility. Everybody has a role in this and it has to be genuine.

Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.