Deadly explosion at Texas fertilizer plant

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by Michael Heygood

Investigations are underway to determine the cause of a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. It is not yet known how many died or were injured in the devastating explosion. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is assisting the state fire marshal’s office in determining the cause of the incident.

Fertilizer production and storage comes with risks. The West, Texas plant stored and blended anhydrous ammonia — a pungent gas with suffocating fumes used as a fertilizer. Meanwhile, a different type of fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, can explode if mixed with fuel and ignited. It is not known if ammonium nitrate was at the West facility. The facility mainly stored and blended anhydrous ammonia.

Anhydrous ammonia is a gas used in making fertilizer. It can cause severe burns if it combines with water in the body. Exposure to high concentrations can lead to death. The West Fertilizer Co. has said it had 54,000 pounds of the chemical.

The facility in West, Texas had been fined $2,300 by the Environmental Protection Agency back in 2006 for not having a risk-management plan that was up to federal standards, The Dallas Morning News has reported. After that citation, West Fertilizer Co. vowed to meet standards for its ammonia storage tanks — including daily in-house inspections and water-spray systems in case of accidental releases. Also in 2006, West Fertilizer had a complaint filed against it for a lingering smell of ammonia, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality website shows.

For its part, the operators of the West Texas facility thought an explosion was impossible. The Dallas Morning News obtained a copy of the facility’s internal safety review for fire or explosive risks. “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.”

Inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are relatively infrequent. The Texas fertilizer industry has only seen six inspections in the past five years — and the West Texas Fertilizer Co. facility was not one of them.

The deadliest industrial accident this country has ever seen involved the fertilizer ammonium nitrate. In 1947, a fire on board a French vessel docked in the Port of Texas City detonated some 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. All told, 581 people died — including most of Texas City’s fire department.

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Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2013.