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Picking up the pieces

In the immediate aftermath of an explosion at a fertilizer plant involving ammonium nitrate in West, Texas, there was no shortage of blame over what could have been done to prevent a catastrophe that left a trail of destruction in the town of...


Photo credit: Thinkstock
Photo credit: Thinkstock

In the immediate aftermath of an explosion at a fertilizer plant involving ammonium nitrate in West, Texas, there was no shortage of blame over what could have been done to prevent a catastrophe that left a trail of destruction in the town of about 2,800. Better and more accessible regulations surrounding the storage of this dangerous substance, greater government oversight and tighter cooperation between state agencies were cited as some of the things that could have been done to avoid the disaster.

The blast in the fertilizer and seed building at West Fertilizer Co. on April 17 killed 10 first responders — many of them volunteer firefighters who came following initial reports of a fire at the plant — and at least four residents who assisted the firefighters. The shockwave from the explosion, which measured 2.1 on the Richter scale, injured approximately 200 area residents.

When Anyck Turgeon, chief executive officer and founder of M-CAT Enterprises, assisted victims in West, Texas following the massive explosion at the fertilizer plant in mid-April, the devastation of the community was apparent.

“People I saw, met and spoke with in West, Texas were really sad. Their economy is really dependent on the provisioning of specialized fertilizers to farmers,” says Turgeon, head of the global security, fraud and business onsite management solutions provider in Austin. Turgeon conducted a preliminary onsite assessment following the explosion.

After the dust had settled, the crater at the seat of the explosion at West Fertilizer Co. measured 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, according to a preliminary, three-dimensional rendering by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — one of about 30 agencies trying to fit together the pieces of the puzzle.

Preliminary findings, released on June 27 by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), found that an intense fire in a wooden warehouse building led to the detonation of approximately 30 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in wooden bins. Not only were the warehouse and bins combustible, the building also contained significant amounts of combustible seeds, which likely contributed to the intensity of the fire.

The findings also noted that the building lacked a sprinkler system or other mechanisms that could detect and suppress fire automatically, especially when the building was unoccupied after hours.

While the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the International Code Council (ICC) and private organizations that develop fire codes have written code provisions for the safety of ammonium nitrate, “many of these safety provisions are quite old and appear to be confusing or contradictory even to code experts and are in need of a comprehensive review,” the CSB report says. For example, the ICC’s International Fire Code directs users to a defunct code for ammonium nitrate — NFPA490 — last issued in 2002, rather than the current code, NFPA 400.

However, an intentionally set fire could not be ruled out, Robert Champion, ATF special agent in charge, said in a statement on May 16 announcing the conclusion of the scene investigation.

The incident turned into a criminal investigation when 31-year-old paramedic Bryce Reed, one of the responders at the scene, was arrested and charged with unlawfully possessing an unregistered destructive device. On May 7, a statement from the United States Department of Justice said law enforcement officials who were dispatched to a residence in Abbott, Texas discovered an assortment of bomb-making components allegedly given to the resident by Reed on April 26, nine days after the incident.

The following are some notable ammonium nitrate explosions that have occurred around the world:  

Date

Location

Fatalities

Incident

April 22, 2004

Ryongchon,
North Korea

154

The explosion at a railway station resulted from contact between two train wagons carrying ammonium nitrate and a wagon containing fuel oil.

April 16, 1947

Texas City
United States

576

The ship SS Grandcamp caught fire and exploded at the docks while carrying ammonium nitrate. The explosion killed at least 576 people and damaged more than 1,000 residences and buildings.

April 2, 1916

Uplees,
United Kingdom

109

A fire broke out in some empty sacks at a gunpowder mill. About 15 tonnes of TNT and 150 tonnes of ammonium nitrate blew up, creating a crater measuring 120 feet wide by 20 feet deep.

Sources: The Energy Library; Texas State Historical Society; and the Town of Faversham’s website respectively.

“At this time, authorities will not speculate whether the possession of the unregistered destructive device has any connection to the West fertilizer plant explosion,” the statement notes.

MORE QUESTIONS

The explosion, described by the CSB as a “very powerful event,” has raised concerns over federal regulatory systems not only in the United States, but in Canada too.

Here, there are various regulations relating to the storage and transportation of ammonium nitrate, including the Ammonium Nitrate Storage Facilities Regulations and the Anhydrous Ammonia Bulk Storage Regulations under the Canada Transportation Act. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) also administers the Explosives Act and related regulations such as the Restricted Components Regulations, which deal with security from a criminal or terrorist standpoint.

“Health and safety is a provincial jurisdiction,” NRCan communications advisor Jacinthe Perras says from Ottawa. However, NRCan’s website says the main priority of its Explosives Safety and Security Branch is the safety and security of the public and all workers in Canada’s explosives industry.

Jean-Luc Arpin, national manager of licensing, compliance and authorization with NRCan, adds that the Restricted Components Regulations were adopted in 2008. Under the regulations, sellers of restricted components such as ammonium nitrate must enroll with NRCan; maintain inventory and sales records, including the identification of purchasers; have a plan in place for addressing security-related events; and inform local police in writing of all locations where ammonium nitrate is stored.

In addition to local police agencies, the responsibilities for enforcing the regulations straddle municipal and provincial borders. “Storing things like ammonium nitrate, diesel fuel and other volatile and explosive chemicals are all subject in some way, shape or form to legislation both federally and provincially,” says Richard Smythe, an analytical chemist with Peninsula Chemical Analysis Ltd. in Wainflee
t, Ontario.

“Now, whether or not we have an industrial, transportation or even a military organization or even a farm organization that knows the rules and follows the rules is another thing,” Smythe adds.

Complex regulations often make it hard to determine the scope and responsibilities of enforcement by the government agencies concerned. “Who actually handles the storage, whose jurisdiction?” Smythe asks. “On whose watch is it when the truck stops and the guy takes the bags off the trucks and puts them on the ground? Is the [Transportation of Dangerous Goods Regulations] no longer applicable?”

Smythe says history has proven that one should not underestimate the danger of ammonium nitrate. Yet this highly explosive substance is often turned over to farmers with little oversight. “There may be legislation, but it’s hidden,” he notes. “It slipped through the cracks. How many times are we going to hear that euphemism?”

MUDDY WATERS

In the United States, the number of investigative agencies involved in regulating explosive or flammable substances, each with specific mandates, makes it challenging to pinpoint responsibility for regulatory enforcement.

For example, the Center for Effective Government in Washington, D.C. notes that under the Clean Air Act, facilities that handle toxic, flammable or otherwise reactive chemicals are required to submit risk management plans to help local fire, police and emergency responders prepare for and respond to chemical accidents.

Although the 2011 risk management report submitted by West Fertilizer to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies several potential hazards — including equipment failure and toxic release — the company did not indicate flammable or explosive hazards onsite as among the hazards, the Center reveals in a resource paper. The plant, which stores large quantities of ammonium nitrate onsite, is also not one of the chemical facilities required to report under the EPA’s risk management program.

With the sheer amount of resources — both private and public — committed to investigating this lethal event, Turgeon contends that “the investment towards specialization resulting in decentralization that has taken place has deemed these non-collaborating and independently incomplete groups mostly inefficient, counter-competitive and overly costly.”

She points out that West Fertilizer Co. last completed a full safety inspection in 1985 when it was cited for five serious safety violations. “As one of these infractions included improper storage of ammonium nitrate, it is surprising that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved schools to be located within 3,000 feet of this facility in 2006,” Turgeon charges.

Several complaints about smell were not followed up by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or EPA and full onsite investigations were not completed by the Department of Homeland Security in spite of the 270 tonnes of ammonium nitrate reported in the EPA Tier II report.

Minor fines for infractions meted out in 2011 did not result in onsite visits by local authorities. Ongoing reports of ammonium nitrate theft were allegedly not further investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security or other appropriate authorities, Turgeon adds.

Testimony provided by CSB chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on June 27 indicated that the CSB conducted detailed interviews with about 30 witnesses and issued approximately 13 document requests to West Fertilizer, contract firms, hospitals and regulators. The CSB has also engaged external experts in blast reconstruction, explosion mechanisms, fire codes and fire protection.

Moure-Eraso added in his testimony that the investigation faced significant challenges since the accident site was treated as a crime scene for about five weeks after April 17 and was extensively altered during that period when much of the surviving evidence was removed.

After other agencies wrap up their onsite investigations, the CSB reports that it will continue its root cause investigation. Moure-Eraso says the investigation will look into the following:

• Safe handling and storage standards for ammonium nitrate;

• Land-use planning and zoning practices for high-hazard facilities in relation to schools, public facilities and residential areas;

• Safer products or ways to store and mitigate damage should a fire or explosion occur;

• The effectiveness of regulatory coverage, including regulations from OSHA, EPA and the state of Texas; and

• Emergency response and preparedness, fire codes and guidelines for good practices found in other jurisdictions.

While the independent federal agency does not issue citations or fines, it does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labour groups and regulatory agencies such as the EPA and OSHA.

“After a disaster of this scale, it is essential to pursue improved safety as we look toward the future,” Moure-Eraso said in a statement in mid-May. “This accident produced far more offsite community damage and destruction than any we have investigated since the agency opened its doors in 1998.”

DEADLY PRESSURE

To better understand the impact of an ammonium nitrate explosion, Smythe explains that normal atmospheric pressure is 15 pounds per square inch.

For ammonium nitrate, which does not burn but detonates, this chemical reaction creates overpressures 10 to 30 times the normal atmospheric pressure. “When that happens, the barn would end up being matchsticks,” he says. “You have a virtually instantaneous detonation.”

At overpressures 25 to 30 times the normal atmospheric pressure, the detonation destroys everything in its path. If bags of ammonium nitrate are heated to about 210 degrees Celsius, they can decompose and detonate, instantaneously setting off the rest of the pile. “Nobody’s going to walk away from an ammonium nitrate explosion,” notes Smythe, who thinks it is not unlikely that such an incident could occur again. “Nobody had ever heard of West, Texas,” he says. “Until they blew it off the map.”

It only takes some simple precautions to prevent similar catastrophes. Smythe suggests placing the product out in a field surrounded by concrete blocks so that the substance is protected from heat should there be a fire. Spreading out the bags also makes good sense so that a fire does not spread from one bag to the next.

Turgeon also recommends that a centralized agency conduct annual onsite inspections and interviews, engage in monthly reporting of chemical inventories to firefighters and first responders like mutual aid associations, and establish a confidential online and phone tips reporting system.

Handle with Care

Ammonium nitrate, widely used as a fertilizer for agricultural production purposes, is also highly explosive. To better manage the risks associated with its use, handling and storage, the Fertilizer Safety and Security Council in Ottawa lists the following measures that must be implemented in any ammonium nitrate storage facility in Canada:

• All bin gates providing access to storage bins containing ammonium nitrate are locked and secured. Where possible, a perimeter security, such as fencing with locked gates, be provided;

• All doors, windows and other points of access to buildings storing bagged or bulk ammonium nitrate are secured with a high-security lock;

• A documented key-control system for all locks at the facility that provides access to the substance is implemented;

• After-hours security lighting is provided to illuminate main points of access to storage buildings or bins;

• All
storage buildings are equipped with a monitored security system;

• Storage facilities are equipped with signage to indicate no authorized access and that only certain persons, including contractors authorized by the seller, have access to ammonium nitrate; and

• All guests and visitors to a facility are required to report to management or security personnel prior to access.

Source: Fertilizer Safety and Security Council’s Draft Agricultural Ammonium Nitrate Code of Practice, January of 2012

Another option is to use a safer alternative to ammonium nitrate. Kevin Fleming, a former optical engineer who retired from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February, helped develop an ammonium nitrate fertilizer formula with iron sulphate as an additive that is as effective as ammonium nitrate, but not as detonable.

“Iron sulphate just happens to be a good fertilizer and it’s very difficult to transform that with ammonium nitrate into pure ammonium nitrate for explosives,” he notes.

Fleming, who trained soldiers in the United States for several years to avoid improvised explosive devices, says he originally developed the formula for the desert-like soils in the Middle East. Mixing iron sulphate — a by-product in various industries — with ammonium nitrate is not only beneficial for alkaline soils; it is also inexpensive and can be used in large quantities without destroying the soil.

Fleming says he has personally witnessed the horrific aftermath caused by improvised explosive devices. “The biggest thrill I could possibly get — it’s beyond money — would be just knowing that people may have a little better chance of not suffering the horrific injuries.”

When asked if iron sulphate mixed with ammonium nitrate could help prevent an incident such as that which took place in West, Fleming says he does not want to speculate. “But I think there is a good possibility that an additive such as iron sulphate would have reduced that possibility.”

On its own, ammonium nitrate is a perfectly stable fertilizer. “You can put it down on a concrete block and you could smack it with a wooden hammer — you could do whatever you want with it — and it wouldn’t do anything,” Smythe says.

Ammonium nitrate is not new science and has been around for more than a century. Legislation pertaining to storing ammonium nitrate in bulk quantities was passed shortly after three explosions in Canada and the United States in the early 1900s. “Ammonium nitrate and its volatility and propensity for devastating explosions have been stamped throughout history for over 100 years,” he adds.

Safer substitutes aside, an executive order signed by president Barack Obama to improve safety at chemical facilities in the United States was issued on August 1. The order calls for increased operational co-ordination among state, local and tribal partners to beef up safety and security in chemical facilities.

The establishment of a chemical facility safety and security working group, which will meet no less than quarterly to discuss the status of efforts to implement the order, has been tasked to provide a status report within 270 days. The order also calls for enhanced information collection and sharing across agencies to support more informed decision-making, streamline reporting requirements and reduce duplicating efforts.

Moure-Eraso applauds the executive order. “The West accident showed a particularly glaring need for comprehensive regulation of reactive chemicals hazards and in particular ammonium nitrate,” he says. “It is my hope that this executive order will spur development of regulation and enforcement for the safe handling of ammonium nitrate and other gaps in the coverage of reactive hazards.”

That said, Turgeon says it is too early to tell if the explosion in West will result in meaningful change or simply serve as a footnote in the history of ammonium nitrate explosions. “My biggest concerns are that the victims will never receive a fair compensation for their loss and damages, the city may become a ghost town and we are never going to learn from this experience.”

Jason Contant is managing editor of OHS CANADA.

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