The explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas in April 2013 seemed like a freak accident, but in reality Texas has more than 100 similar facilities, any one of which could potentially cause a similar disaster.
A panel of experts discussed the aftereffects of the disaster at the Texas Tribune Festival, held on the University of Texas campus Sept. 27-29. The panel included Elena Craft, health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund; Chris Connealy, state fire marshal, Texas Department of Insurance; Tim Herrman, state chemist; state representative Kyle Kacal, whose district (12) includes West; and Tommy Muska, mayor of West.
“Texas has the highest number of workplace fatalities in the nation. We lose more than 400 lives a year to tragedies that could be prevented, and it’s the same type happening over and over again." — health scientist Elena Craft
After the explosion in West, Connealy said, the state set out to identify all facilities making or storing the fertilizer ingredient. Merging four different databases yielded a list of 153, but only 18 of those seemed to mix the same chemicals as the one in West. So the state sent inspectors to the entire list, ultimately identifying 115 with 10,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate on site.
As part of efforts to help ward against a repeat of West, the fire marshal’s office is creating an online, interactive map that searches for these facilities by ZIP code. Connealy said it should be live by November. Recalling that ammonium nitrate was the explosive component used in the Oklahoma City bombing, Connealy said, "The challenge is that we want the public to know where these facilities are, balanced against helping those who have ill intent.”
If a search reveals a nearby facility, Connealy explained, an icon will come up directing individuals to contact their local fire department. “It’s a local issue, and we want to keep it local,” he elaborated. Connealy’s office also plans to visit with first responders, local planning committees, facility managers and others in the 181 or so counties that house facilities, in part to make sure everyone is aware of best practices for storage of the chemical. Those best practices — several of which would have prevented the West explosion — are now on the state chemist’s website.
The department is also approaching counties to offer various forms of assistance, including training, especially for volunteer fire departments common in rural areas. West’s volunteer department lost five firefighters in the explosion.
Texas is one of only two states with no fire code — Missouri is the other — and many Texas counties are prohibited from having a fire code as well. That means inspections of facilities such as the one in West are purely voluntary; when the fire marshal’s office began inspecting facilities that handle ammonium nitrate after the West explosion, six of them turned inspectors away (two of those have since allowed the inspection).
A state fire code could come up in the next legislative session as well, panelists said. But that prompts the question of whether something should have been done sooner.
“West was like groundhog day in Texas,” said Craft. “We see these incidents happening over and over again, with major explosions in the past decade at Waxahachie and Texas City in addition to West. Reading through reports from those incidents, I see the same recommendations over and over again: more inspectors, more resources to make sure these facilities are operating under guidelines under applicable laws. The West facility had a history of violations, not just of one agency but multiple agencies. We need a long-term solution.”
Mayor Muska pointed out that a sprinkler system could have prevented the West explosion; the fire began in one area of the facility and took about 20 minutes to reach the ammonium nitrate — minutes during which sprinklers might have extinguished the flames. That, he added, is a simple fix that won’t cost a lot of money.
“Texas has the highest number of workplace fatalities in the nation,” Craft said. “We lose more than 400 lives a year to tragedies that could be prevented, and it’s the same type happening over and over again. It seems like we could be doing a better job. We use hazardous compounds in a lot of industries, but are we handling them properly? I think in this instance, we were not.”
Kacal stated that the legislature is looking at new laws. “I have no doubt a lot of these plants will start retrofitting. If we don’t have fertilizer plants, we won’t be able to feed people.”
Some good already has come from the tragedy, Muska said. “Volunteer fire departments with fertilizer plants in their back yard now know what those plants can do, and they are looking at how they can deal with it. If there’s a positive to this it’s that maybe they’ll go out and do inspections and planning.”
Meanwhile, Muska has another step on his mind. “Google Earth shows West the day after the explosion. We’ve had a vast improvement since then, and I’m trying to get Google to change that.”