THE MAGAZINE

Chemical Facilities Tackle an Explosive Problem

By Megan Gates

Ammonium nitrate, a key component of fertilizer, is a relatively stable compound. When heated, it typically decomposes into two common and widely used gases: laughing gas and water vapor. But when large quantities of ammonium nitrate are confined and exposed to great heat, the results can be explosive.

That’s precisely what occurred when a wooden warehouse at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, caught fire on April 17, 2013, causing approximately 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside to explode. The eruption killed 15 people and injured more than 200. After investigating the incident, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ (ATF) National Response Team ruled the cause of the fire that set off the explosion “undetermined,” but also discovered that there was no working sprinkler system in place that could have helped contain the fire at the factory. After additional inquiry, investigators also learned that the factory hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985.

The West explosion was not an isolated incident. While they might not have received equal media attention, multiple other chemical facilities have exploded since April 2013. For example, 73 people were injured when the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Geismar, Louisiana, went up in flames in June. A blaze caused methanol tanks to explode at a Danlin plant in Thomas, Oklahoma, in September. A Hydrodec North America LLC plant in Canton, Ohio, erupted in November, causing $12.5 million in damage.

The disasters have sparked federal action. President Barack Obama issued an executive order establishing the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, which is designed to improve coordination among stakeholders and review current regulations and standards for the handling, storage, and transportation of hazardous chemicals with representatives from the Departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture, Justice, Labor, and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute, and use them are essential to our economy,” a statement from the White House Press Secretary’s Office said after the executive order was issued. “However, incidents such as the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, in April are tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed.”

Members of the federal working group listened to stakeholders present their views over the last few months on whether new regulations are needed to improve chemical facility safety and security in light of the explosion. The group determined that ammonium nitrate must be handled more safely and that interagency communications must be improved. Suggestions included developing a database to share risk information and investigating safer alternatives to current chemicals.
 

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