West Fertilizer Company explosion
Aerial photo taken several days after the event.
|Time||7:50:38 p.m. CDT (UTC−05:00)|
|Date||April 17, 2013|
|Location||West Fertilizer Co.,
1471 Jerry Mashek Drive,
West, Texas, United States
|Injuries||More than 160|
|Property damage||West Fertilizer Company building obliterated, 60–80 homes destroyed, 50–75 homes damaged, 50-unit apartment building destroyed
West Middle School damaged
On April 17, 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in West, Texas, eighteen miles (29 km) north of Waco, while emergency services personnel were responding to a fire at the facility. Fifteen people were killed, more than 160 were injured, and more than 150 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Investigators have confirmed that ammonium nitrate was the material that exploded, but the cause of the initial fire is as yet unknown.
At the time of the accident, the plant had last been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985. According to records obtained by the Associated Press, OSHA cited the plant for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia and fined it $30; OSHA could have imposed a fine of as much as $1,000. OSHA also cited the plant for violations of respiratory protection standards, but did not issue a fine. OSHA officials said the facility was not on their "National Emphasis Plan" for inspections, because it was not a manufacturer, had no record of a major accident, and the Environmental Protection Agency did not consider it a major risk.
After a complaint in 2006 about an ammonia smell coming from the facility, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated and cited the operator for not having obtained a permit for its two storage tanks containing anhydrous ammonia. A permit was issued once the operators brought the facility into accord with agency regulations and recommendations. Also in 2006, the EPA fined the owners $2,300 for problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time. In June 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration further fined the facility $5,250 for violations regarding its storage of anhydrous ammonia.
According to an open records request by Reuters, the plant had a long history of minor thefts, presumably by people wanting to use anhydrous ammonia to make methamphetamine. The facility lacked burglar alarms or even a fenced perimeter. It installed a surveillance system in 2009 after law enforcement had recommended it.
In an emergency planning report filed with the EPA in 2011, company officials stated the ammonia storage tanks did not represent a significant fire or explosion hazard. The tanks were still intact following the fire and explosion.
According to its last filing with the EPA in late 2012, the company stated that it stored 540,000 pounds (270 short tons; 240 t) of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds (55 short tons; 50 t) of anhydrous ammonia on the site. A week after the explosion, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Senate investigators that the company did not appear to have disclosed its ammonium nitrate stock to her department. Federal law requires that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) be notified whenever anyone has more than one ton of ammonium nitrate on hand, or 400 pounds (180 kg) if the ammonium nitrate is combined with combustible material.
Fire and explosion
The facility caught fire on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, then exploded as firefighters were attempting to douse the flames. The cause of the initial fire remains unknown; authorities ruled out weather, natural causes, anhydrous ammonia, and ammonium nitrate in a rail car as possible causes of the fire. The explosion occurred about 7:50:38 p.m. CDT (00:50 UTC, April 18).
As a result of the massive explosion, the West Fertilizer Company plant was obliterated, and heavy damage and further destruction was caused to surrounding areas. Numbers for people dead or injured varied initially.
In addition to the obliterated plant, the damaged buildings included the public West Middle School, which sits next to the facility. A neighboring 50-unit, two-story apartment building was destroyed.
The blast damaged the nearby West Rest Haven nursing home, and many residents were evacuated. Many of the nursing home residents received cuts from flying glass, but emergency personnel on scene judged that most of these injuries were not life-threatening.
On April 20, some residents who tried to return to their destroyed homes were turned away, because leaking gas tanks were causing small fires.
According to the company's insurer, United States Fire Insurance of Morristown, New Jersey, the facility was only covered by $1 million in liability insurance. According to official estimates from both state and company officials, this amount will not even begin to cover the cost of damages. Furthermore, according to The Dallas Morning News, Texas law allows fertilizer storage facilities to operate without any liability insurance at all, even when they store hazardous materials.
Injuries and fatalities
West Mayor Tommy Muska told the Waco Tribune-Herald that as of late evening, April 17, six or seven volunteer firefighters from the city were unaccounted for. West EMS Director Dr. George Smith, himself injured, stated that he believed at least two emergency responders were killed.
"We do have confirmed fatalities," Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman D.L. Wilson said at a midnight news conference on April 17. "We have a tremendous amount of injuries ... over 100 injuries at this time." Wilson did not confirm or deny an earlier report that the number of deaths could be in the range of 60 to 70. He said the blast zone was "just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City," comparing its effects to the Oklahoma City bombing, and that there were "50 to 75" homes and businesses damaged. Sergeant William Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said the operation has gone into a "search-and-rescue mode", aiming to find survivors and recover those who might be trapped in buildings. He said at least 160 people had been injured, and the firefighters who were combating the initial fire were yet to be accounted for. Swanton quoted local environmental officials and emergency personnel in saying there was no risk to the community from the smoke fumes rising from the facility.
Over 100 people were reported to be injured in the blast and were originally transported to a makeshift triage set up at West High School's football field. It was later moved to a community center due to its proximity to the still-burning facility. Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco received over 40 injured for treatment. Patients were also admitted to Waco's Providence Healthcare Network, Fort Worth's John Peter Smith Health Network, Dallas's Parkland Memorial Hospital, and Temple's Scott and White Memorial Hospital.
It was announced on April 19 that twelve bodies had been recovered, sixty people were missing, and there had been at least 200 injured. The twelve dead included ten first responders as well as two civilians who had volunteered to fight the fire.
Those living in and around West report that the blast felt like an earthquake. The United States Geological Survey recorded the explosion as a 2.1-magnitude tremor. The blast was heard in nearby Hillsboro, Waxahachie, DeSoto, and as far north as Arlington. Windows were blown out in Abbott, 7 miles (11 km) NNE of West.
Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a statement on the evening of April 17:
|“||We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident. We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene.||”|
President Barack Obama issued his own statement on April 18:
|“||Today our prayers go out to the people of West, Texas in the aftermath of last night's deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant. A tight-knit community has been shaken, and good, hard-working people have lost their lives. I want to thank the first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded. My Administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue. West is a town that many Texans hold near and dear to their hearts, and as residents continue to respond to this tragedy, they will have the support of the American people.||”|
Due to toxic fumes and a large number of displaced families, West Independent School District announced on its Twitter feed that all five of the district's schools would stay closed until further notice; they reopened on April 22. Nearby school districts Abbott Independent School District (ISD) and Penelope ISD also closed their schools for a day.
Waco Police indicated that the explosion site would be treated as a crime scene out of caution. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced on the morning of April 18 that it would be sending a national response team including fire investigators, explosive experts, chemists, and canine units to investigate the site. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency that investigates accidents involving industrial chemicals, also dispatched a major investigation team to West to begin searching for the cause of the disaster.
Urban Search and Rescue Texas Task Force 1 and Texas Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue were deployed on the morning of April 18 to assist in search and rescue. An incident management team from the Texas A&M Forest Service was also deployed, as was the Veterinary Emergency Team from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
Governor Perry declared McLennan County a disaster area, and on April 22, President Obama issued an Emergency Declaration, which afforded the state aid with 75% federal funding. On April 18, the Texas National Guard sent members of the 6th Civil Support Team to the area to test the air quality and assess chemical and biological hazards.
On June 13, 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declined additional aid to the town, based in large part on the ability of the State of Texas to provide the necessary funds to rebuild. However, on August 2, 2013, FEMA reversed its original decision and approved a major disaster declaration for West.
The state fire marshal department said that investigators interviewed "almost 300 people," and followed 160 leads in their initial investigation.
In May 2013, the Texas Department of Public Safety instructed the Texas Rangers and the McLennan Sheriff's Department to join the Texas Fire Marshall's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in the criminal investigation into the explosion.
Ultimately, investigators blamed stocks of ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in a bin inside a seed and fertilizer building on the property for the explosion but failed to identify what started the actual fire that led to the explosion.
On April 22, 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released preliminary results of its investigation into the explosion. It found that company officials failed to safely store the chemicals in its stockpile, and that federal, state and local regulations about the handling of hazardous materials were inadequate. In a statement released alongside the report, the board's chair, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, stated: "The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it." The CSB's yearlong investigation found that 1,351 facilities across the country store ammonium nitrate, and that there many areas had no regulations to keep such facilities away from populated areas. Moure-Eraso urged new and revised regulations, stating "there is no substitute for an efficient regulatory system that ensures that all companies are operating to the same high standards. We cannot depend on voluntary compliance."
One year later, in 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that fertilizer storage regulations in the U.S. were unchanged.
In April 2015, three bills regulating storage and inspection of ammonium nitrate and a fourth bill to create a statewide notification system alerting the public about any hazardous chemical leak at a manufacturing facility were introduced in the Texas Legislature.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to 2013 West, Texas, explosion.|
- West Fertilizer Explosion and Fire investigation - U.S. Chemical Safety Board
- CSB Video Documenting the Blast Damage in West, Texas
- Texas fertilizer plant explosion collected news and commentary at The Guardian
- West Fertilizer, Off the Grid: The Problem of Unidentified Chemical Facilities: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies of the House Committee on Homeland Security, 114th Congress, First Session, August 1, 2013