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Limited safety rules, equipment at Texas fertilizer plant

Posted on by SST

The fertilizer plant in West, Texas, where an explosion occurred April 17, killing at least 14 people, lacked proper safety equipment, investigators have found. The plant did not have sprinklers, firewalls or a water deluge system. According to the Associated Press, safety inspections at facilities like the fertilizer plant are rare and a lack of safety equipment is not unusual. 

Small plants and distributors across the country slip through the cracks of government agencies who often have to address safety issues regarding large installations and industries, the article stated. There are as many as 1,150 small plants just in Texas that contain enough agricultural chemicals that could cause a large explosion similar to the one in West, the AP reported. 

The plant that exploded in West had large amounts of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, chemicals used in fertilizers and cleaning products. The report stated the facility was permitted to store as much as 90 tons of ammonium nitrate in one container and a maximum of 270 tons at the site. The facility was also allowed as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site.

Both ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia are considered flammable, explosive and potentially toxic if exposed to the proper mixture. 

Ramiro Garcia, head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that because the plant had very small air emissions, inspections were typically only conducted after complaints were filed. 

Local authorities issued zoning permits to the plant and the fertilizer company received a special permit because it was less than 3,000 feet from a school, the report stated. 

Homes in a four-block area around the explosion, an apartment complex and a nursing home were destroyed in the blast. 

Plant was issued previous safety citations
Although inspections are most often done on a complaint basis, the West, Texas fertilizer facility has faced violations and fines in the past for potentially hazardous conditions. 

In 2012, the company was issued a $10,000 fine by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration after an investigation found the company was improperly labeling storage tanks and was also readying a chemical transfer without producing a security plan. 

The Environmental Protection Agency cited the owners of the facility for not having an up-to-date risk management plan. The company later said it did not feel there were any violations in storing or handling flammable substances. 

On a state level, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issued a permit for the company's handling of anhydrous ammonia requiring safety equipment the company reportedly told the EPA it did not have. The TCEQ said it may not have been checked the facility to confirm the safety equipment was there, according to the AP. 

Company's can increase employee safety and prevent major explosions at facilities with a toxic gas detector.

Industrial Safety News brought to you by Safety Systems Technology, Inc., leaders in fire and gas detection systems.

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