By TIM ALEXANDER
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The specifics regarding a deadly explosion last week at a West, Texas, facility involving fertilizer were still unclear at press time, according to officials with the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Assoc. (IFCA) and Washington, D.C.-based The Fertilizer Institute (TFI).
“As of now it appears they are considering it an accident,” said Kevin Runkle, director of regulatory services for the IFCA, who described the facility as a fertilizer and agricultural supply retail outlet and grain elevator. “It’s unclear which products ignited. There are a number of possibilities.”
TFI Vice President of Public Affairs Kathy Mathers issued a fact sheet on the tragedy, in which the organization said it “cannot comment on the specifics” regarding events at the Texas facility but “extend our thoughts and prayers to all of the people who have been impacted by this tragic event.”
The tragedy, which claimed 14 lives at last report, unfolded in the 2,800-population town of West around 8 p.m. April 17 when a fire was first reported at the West Fertilizer Co. Eleven of the dead were volunteer emergency responders who apparently answered the initial fire call at the facility.
Storage volume not reported
According to a Thomson Reuters report Sunday, the plant had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Yet, a person familiar with DHS operations said West Fertilizer Co. did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer.
Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 pounds or more of the substance, Reuters reported. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.
Firms are responsible for self-reporting the volumes of ammonium nitrate and other volatile chemicals they hold to the DHS. Since the agency never received any so-called top-screen report from West Fertilizer, the facility was not regulated or monitored by the DHS under its CFAT standards, largely designed to prevent sabotage of sites and to keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.
Reuters reported chemical safety experts and local officials suspect last week’s blast was caused when ammonium nitrate was set ablaze. Authorities suspect the disaster was an industrial accident, but haven’t ruled out other possibilities. The fertilizer is considered safe when stored properly, but can explode at high temperatures and when it reacts with other substances.
Nearby Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco treated 98 patients, including five in intensive care, while Providence Health Center of Waco received 65 patients from the explosion, according to Fox News reports. In addition, up to 75 homes were damaged along with an apartment complex, which was described as destroyed.
The Chemical Safety Board was deployed to the scene of the explosion and may call on TFI as a resource in the investigation of what went wrong at the facility. TFI is a member of the Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response program, which encompasses 27 states, including Texas. Emergency response personnel have received training in responding to anhydrous ammonia accidents, according to TFI.
Fertilizer is regulated at the federal level by agencies including the departments of Homeland Security, Labor and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and overseen at state levels by state departments of agriculture. In Illinois, ag retailers comply with some of the most stringent regulations in the United States, reporting to the U.S. and Illinois EPAs, state Department of Agriculture, fertilizer and pesticide storage inspection programs, U.S. Coast Guard and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, among others.
Industry welcomes evaluations
Ag retailers in Illinois voluntarily develop fire prevention plans to address and evaluate risks for fires at facilities holding fertilizers, and invite local fire departments and emergency responders to attend annual safety tours of their facilities, according to the IFCA.
In addition, company inventory lists and facility site plans must be provided to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to assist emergency responders to prepare for an event such as the one that occurred in West.
“A rigorous training program, combined with compliance with state and federal regulations, produced an excellent safety record within our industry. This excellent track record will undoubtedly help ensure the continued use of agricultural input products,” the IFCA stated in a “talking points” memo issued to media following the tragedy.
April marks the 100th anniversary of manmade fertilizers, according to the Illinois Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA), which issued a statement to members extolling synthetic fertilizers as one factor that allowed for the human population boom.
“Without fertilizer, there simply wouldn’t be enough food produced on our planet to sustain more than 3.5 billion people. Fertilizer isn’t the enemy – inefficient use is,” the statement read, in part.
Subsequently, the ICGA acknowledged accidents such as the one in West can cause problems for the fertilizer industry and agriculture in general. A quick Google search reveals websites pointing to public distrust of fertilizer and chemical facilities, a fear of accidents and skepticism of the effectiveness and safety of synthetic fertilizers, according to the ICGA.
Jean Payne, president of the IFCA, said Illinois fertilizer dealers welcome government inspection and oversight of their facilities. “A lot of the questions I’ve gotten are whether fertilizer facilities here in Illinois store the same type of products that the facility in Texas did, and generally, the answer is yes. We store nitrogen-based fertilizers in various forms, and a lot of facilities store fuel and store propane,” she said.
“While they don’t know yet the cause of the explosion and may not for some time, I’ve been reassuring people that this is one of the reasons why our industry advocates for a lot of safety and inspection measures at our facilities, for anhydrous ammonia and other forms of nitrate-based fertilizers.”
Donald Adair, 83, owner of the West Fertilizer Co., issued as statement on April 19 praising the first responders and issuing condolences to all who had suffered. Adair also disclosed one of the first responders who died at the scene was an employee of the plant.