The video accounts are stunning. Smoke emerges over the city as yellow flames reach towards the sky. A few seconds later an explosion and its resulting pressure wave leave death and destruction in its wake. This was West, Texas in 2013. This is Beirut, Lebanon in 2020. As details of Tuesday’s accident continue to emerge, one thing is clear: we have seen this before.
As Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), an independent federal agency that investigates major chemical incidents in the United States, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to all those impacted by the devastating incident in Lebanon. Although there are many details about this week’s incident we do not yet know, it is imperative that we revisit what we have learned about the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate since the deadly 2013 incident in West.
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The fire and explosion in West, Texas killed 15 people, injured more than 260 others, and caused widespread community damage. The CSB’s investigation determined that the fire and explosion was caused by inadequate storage and handling of ammonium nitrate. As it is becoming clear, this is the same hazardous chemical that was involved in the explosion in Beirut.
In the CSB’s final report issued in 2016, we found that ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of federal safety standards and guidance – a patchwork with many gaps that is still in existence today. Such gaps include allowing the use of combustible wooden buildings and wooden bins to store ammonium nitrate, not requiring the use of sprinklers in storage buildings, and failing to restrict the storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate near homes, schools and hospitals.
The CSB still has several open safety recommendations to federal agencies, including EPA and OSHA, to address these deficiencies. Some progress has been made in the years since the CSB issued its final report, to include increased inspections by OSHA and new guidance on emergency planning issued by EPA. Yet, final implementation of regulatory improvements to storage and handling of ammonium nitrate has yet to occur.
Massive ammonium nitrate explosions have already occurred in the United States, and without regulatory change, it may happen again. If it does, the public will want answers. The CSB is the one federal agency specifically charged with investigating these types of incidents and providing those answers, including a thorough examination of existing regulations and standards.
This type of incident is preventable. It is time to make changes to prevent catastrophic explosions like the ones that have caused so much devastation in West, Texas, and most recently in Beirut.
CSB Report on West (TX) blast: https://www.csb.gov/west-fertilizer-explosion-and-fire-/