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The fertilizer plant which exploded in West, Texas on April 17 was cited for violations in the past, CBS News reports. On June 20, 2006, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality held an investigation at West Fertilizer in response to reports of a strong smell of ammonia. Upon inspection, the commission found that the odor lingered in the air. The investigation resulted in a citation for failing to obtain a permit for operations.
More than 150 buildings were damaged or destroyed as a result of the explosion – the plant itself was leveled, and a four block radius around the point of explosion was almost completely decimated. At least 14 people were killed and approximately 200 injured as the site first caught fire, setting off industrial fire alarms, and then exploded, engulfing the premises in flames. While the exact cause of the fire is unknown, serious concerns have arisen in the last several weeks over inspection procedures and lack of transparency at the Texas plant.
West Fertilizer Co.was required to fill out forms for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and The Dallas Morning News discovered that it was listed on the report that 54,000 pounds of ammonia were present on site. Despite such large amounts of flammable ammonia, West Fertilizer Co. responded "no" on the form when asked if there were any fire or explosive risks.
When asked to describe the worst case scenario in the even of an industrial accident, West Fertilizer Co.said on the form that a 10-minute ammonia gas leak would be the worst possible outcome of a malfunction, and that the gas leak would result in no injuries.
On this same report, West Fertilizer Co. stated that it had no other toxic chemicals on the premises.
Although the company does not have an exact statistic on the amount of fertilizer present the time of the explosion, Reuters reported that in 2012, the plant was recorded to have been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate present that would have set off a series of oversight measures by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
It is federally required that all companies report to the DHS when storing more than 1 ton of ammonium nitrate – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has stated that her department had no knowledge that approximately 270 tons of ammonium nitrate were present at the West, Texas plant. Although such a large amount of fertilizer and ammonium nitrate were being stored in the Texas plant, West Fertilizer Co. did not disclose the full details of their stockpile to the DHS, leaving the federal government unaware of the imminent danger.
The plant was also subject to many levels of regulation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Office of the Texas State Chemist, the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Citations over decades
The plant was last inspected by OSHA in 1985, at which time it was cited for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia and violating respiratory protection regulations. According to Think Progress, West Fertilizer Co. was fined $30 for the improper ammonia storage, and was not issued a fine for failing to meet respiratory regulations. The maximum fine for improper storage of ammonia is $1,000. It has not been confirmed whether or not the plant had combustible gas leak detectors or flame detector sensors in place at the time of the explosion.
These revelations have caused great concern and anger among American legislators, who have begun an investigation into the explosions to consider what if any further regulations should be imposed on the industrial plants around the country.
Industrial Safety News brought to you by Safety Systems Technology, Inc., leaders in fire and gas detection systems.