Two days after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, a giant explosion rocked the small town of West TX. Twelve emergency responders who rushed to the initial fire at the scene were killed in the subsequent blast, as were three civilians. More than 260 were injured and treated at hospitals; 150 buildings were damaged.
Initially, local authorities feared the blast was a terrorist event, but the cause of the blast was the storage of 270 tons of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN). To give some perspective to this, in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building, Timothy McVeigh used 2 tons of ammonium nitrate.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued a draft version of its 265-page Investigation Report into the April 2013 Fire and Explosion at West Fertilizer Company for public preview. The CSB’s January 28 public meeting to release its West Investigation Report will be available via live webcast at 6 pm CST
The report is dedicated to the 12 emergency responders and 3 members of the public who lost their lives. It represents one of the most destructive incidents ever investigated by the CSB.
“The CSB’s analysis includes findings on the technical causes of the fire and explosion; regulatory changes that could have resulted in safety enhancements to the facility; the failure of the insurer to conduct safety inspections or provide an adequate level of coverage; shortcomings in emergency response, including pre-incident planning or response training of the volunteer fire fighters; and deficiencies in land use planning that permitted the City of West to encroach upon the WFC over the years.”
The CSB directed recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. Department of Labor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, and other regional entities.
CSB estimated that total insurance-related losses were around $230 million, but the WFC was only insured for $1 million. One part of the report looks at related policies and regulations, including ” … the failure of the insurer to identify the risks posed by FGAN. A few years prior to the incident, WFC was dropped by one insurer for failing to address safety concerns identified in loss control surveys. The company that insured WFC at the time of the incident did not appear to have conducted its own safety inspections of the facility.”
The CSB’s analysis also pointed to:
- A lack of training in hazardous materials response and pre-incident planning on the part of the West Volunteer Fire Department.
- Shortcomings in federal and state regulations and standards that could reduce the risk of another incident of this type.
- The location of the WFC relative to the surrounding community, which exacerbated offsite consequences.
In terms of the location, the risk to the public continues:
“CSB’s analysis shows that the risk to the public from a catastrophic incident exists at least within the state of Texas, if not more broadly. For example, 19 other Texas facilities storing more than 10,000 pounds of FGAN are located within 0.5 miles of a school, hospital, or nursing home, raising concerns that an incident with offsite consequences of this magnitude could happen again.”
The Waco Tribune: Report: Public still not safe from West-style industrial blasts
There are many ongoing related lawsuits. In October, The Waco Tribune reported: 1st West explosion trial gets settled
Interactive: West plant before and after – before & after aerial photos show scope of destruction
Ellis County remembers West fertilizer plant explosion – “The day a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, Ellis County community members went to Facebook and Twitter to share their reactions. Here’s a look back at not only how the explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed most of the town unfolded, but reactions from the terrible tragedy.”
An excellent Reuters report by M.B. Pell, Ryan McNeill and Janet Roberts was issued in May of 2013.
“The lack of preparedness endangers not only firefighters and emergency medical technicians, but also people nationwide living near chemical stockpiles similar to those that exploded in West.
At least 800,000 people in the United States live within a mile of 440 sites that store potentially explosive ammonium nitrate, which investigators say was the source of the explosion in West, according to a Reuters analysis of hazardous-chemical storage data maintained by 29 states.”
Another section of this report indicates how adequate preparation and training might have saved lives:
“Firefighters who have battled ammonium nitrate fires elsewhere – without death or injury to first responders – say having the Tier II information was critical to their success. They knew what they were facing going in, and responded accordingly.
Called to a fire at a similar fertilizer facility in 2009 in Bryan, Texas, firefighters opted not to fight the blaze. Although the circumstances were somewhat different – firefighters knew going in that ammonium nitrate already had ignited – the first responders decided to keep a safe distance and evacuate nearby residents. No one was injured, and the fire burned itself out.
Key to the response, said Chief Joe Ondrasek of the Brazos County Fire Department Precinct 4, was having the fertilizer company’s Tier II report in hand. Firefighters were unable to contact the plant manager immediately, he said, and therefore relied on the report to inform their response.
A federally funded program intended to grant fire departments online access to the Tier II reports was not being used in West. Although some firefighters in Texas said they know about and use the system, known as E-Plan, others said they didn’t know of its existence or how to access it.
Federal funding for the E-Plan system was eliminated last October, which could hurt efforts to keep it up and running.”