Texas fertilizer disaster raises safety, regulatory concerns

22:10 PM | April 29, 2013 | —Lindsay Frost and Deepti Ramesh

Destruction: The explosion is believed to be caused by excessive ammonium nitrate stored without DHS knowledge.

The catastrophic explosion at a Texas fertilizer facility has raised renewed concerns about plant safety. Reports at CW press time say the death toll was 14, with over 200 people injured, following an explosion at a fertilizer distribution and blending facility at West, TX, on 17 April. The explosion is believed to have been triggered by a small fire at West Fertilizer Co.—owned by Adair Grain—although the official cause is being investigated.

According to reports, at the time of the explosion the company had eight employees, including its CEO Donald Adair. Adair released a statement on 23 April expressing his condolences and sympathy for those affected and said he is continuing to work with investigators to determine the cause of the explosion.

The near-term market impact is likely to be minor, but the disaster could slow the massive build-out planned for ammonia capacity, according to a report by PJ Juvekar, chemicals analyst with Citi. “We think there is risk that regulators and communities more closely scrutinize ammonia production and storage safety protocols, particularly to new greenfield plant sites,” Juvekar says. “By our count, 16 ammonia plants have been proposed for North America, and we expect up to 10 of these will eventually be built. ”

The plant stored anhydrous ammonia, used in fertilizers as a crop nutrient, for distribution and held as much as 270 tons—or 540,000 lbs—of ammonium nitrate (AN), 1,350 times the allowable amount set by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Reports say the company failed to self-report the amount of the chemical that was being stored, thus bypassing tight regulations. According to a public statement from DHS, the company had not been regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), however, Daren Coppock, president and CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association, tells CW that the site “absolutely” would be covered under CFATS since they were storing over 10,000 lbs of AN.

Patrick Coyle, owner of the Chemical Facility Security News blog, says that West was supposed to submit an online Chemical Security Assessment Tool outlining the amount of chemicals on hand as a part of CFATS. On this list, AN is considered an “improvised chemical weapon,” Coyle says, and should have been reported. DHS would then determine whether the facility is “high risk” due to its location and area population, and it is unclear whether West fell under DHS’s definition. “They would have had to put security measures in place to guard from stealing [AN], but it has nothing to do with safety,” Coyle says. Although EPA does not require disclosure of ammonium nitrate on risk management plans (RMP)—reports required to be self-submitted by chemical companies every 5 years—the most recent 5-year RMP update was submitted to EPA by West in 2011, when the company cited that there were no flammable chemicals being stored there and only 54,000 lbs of anhydrous ammonia. At the time, the company indicated that “the worst-case release scenario would be the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes,” according to the company’s submission to the EPA.

As of 19 April, the Chemical Safety Board (Washington) had been deployed to the scene to further assess the cause of the accident.

Citing the incident, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D., NJ) introduced the Protecting Communities from Chemical Explosions Act of 2013 that would make it a crime for facilities to fail to register the dangerous chemicals stored on-site, increase civil penalties, and change existing laws that limit DHS’s ability to issue penalties.