CSB Finds Lax Oversight in West (TX) Explosion

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The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said a West (TX) fertilizer facility that exploded earlier this year fell between the cracks of the U.S. safety regulation network that needs to be updated, reports the Wall Street Journal.

"The CSB has determined that ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. safety standards and guidance--a patchwork that has many large holes," Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso told the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The committee's meeting was prompted by a string of industrial accidents in recent months--the fertilizer facility explosion in West, which killed at least 14 people in April; an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Geismar (LA) that killed two workers, and a fire at Chevron Corp.'s (CVX) Richmond (CA) refinery last year.

In a report of preliminary findings released Thursday, the CSB said the West explosion was caused by an intense fire in a wooden warehouse building that led to the detonation of about 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in wooden bins.

The building had no sprinklers or fire detection systems, so the fire was "intense and out of control" by the time firefighters were able to reach the site, the CSB said in its preliminary findings report. And volunteer firefighters were not made aware of the risk that ammonium nitrate at the facility could explode--12 firefighters and emergency responders were killed when the ammonium nitrate suddenly detonated while they were trying to fight the initial blaze.

The storage conditions at the West facility did nothing to mitigate the risk of a fire, but did not run afoul of existing regulations, Mr. Moure-Eraso said. Other countries, like the U.K., recommend that buildings and bins where ammonium nitrate is stored be noncombustible, he said.

"The fertilizer industry tells us that U.S. sites commonly store ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings and bins--even near homes, schools, or other vulnerable facilities. This situation must be addressed," Mr. Moure-Eraso said.

A spokesman for West Fertilizer Co. declined to comment.

Facilities like the one in West fall outside of existing federal process safety standards developed in the 1990s. Texas and most counties have no mandatory fire code, and the West facility did not have to comply with voluntary standards for ammonium nitrate storage. Even those are out of date, the CSB said in its report.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does regulate how ammonium nitrate fertilizer is handled, the agency's regulations don't go far enough--allowing wooden bins and buildings to be used for storage and only requiring sprinklers to be installed where high volumes of ammonium nitrate are stored, the CSB said.

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