Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Raises Important Questions about Risks Industrial Facilities Pose

by Sofia Plagakis, 4/23/2013

On April 17, there was a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in central Texas, which killed at least 14 people and injured more than 200. Though investigators are still trying to determine the exact cause of the incident, the West Fertilizer Company's explosion raises serious questions about managing the risks that facilities can pose to local communities.

The Explosion

A fire broke out at the fertilizer plant in the early evening of April 17, and first responders quickly arrived. As firefighters battled the blaze, an explosion powerful enough to be felt from 50 miles away and measured at the equivalent of a 2.1-magnitude earthquake tore through the plant. The explosion demolished up to 80 homes in West, TX, and damaged other buildings nearby, including an apartment complex, a middle school, and a nursing home. The 133 nursing home residents, many of whom had been injured, were evacuated and taken to hospitals.

The confirmed deaths include four residents, nine firefighters, and one first responder who were caught by the explosion while battling the fire and evacuating nearby homes. The explosion is considered one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. The largest U.S. industrial accident occurred in 1947 off the coast of Texas City, TX, when two shipping vessels full of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing six hundred people.

In the Texas blast's aftermath, questions have been raised about whether community residents and regulators fully understood the risks associated with the fertilizer plant and what information emergency first responders and the local community had about the risks.

Were Risk Management Plans Adequate?

Under the Clean Air Act, facilities that handle toxic, flammable, or otherwise reactive chemicals are required to submit risk management plans. These plans help local fire, police, and emergency responders prepare for and respond to chemical accidents and help residents understand the chemical hazards in their communities.

The risk management plan filed for the Texas fertilizer plant listed anhydrous ammonia, a toxic gas with suffocating fumes, as a potential risk. Although the 2011 risk management report West Fertilizer submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies several potential hazards, including equipment failure and toxic release, fire was not listed as a potential risk. The report describes the worst-case scenario for the plant as the "release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes."

The plant also reported no flammable or explosive hazards on site. The EPA classifies anhydrous ammonia as toxic but not flammable. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the chemical to be flammable. This raises serious questions about the accuracy of the company's risk management plan.

Moreover, the Texas plant stored large quantities of ammonium nitrate on site. This is the primary material used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people at a federal office building. Yet ammonium nitrate is not one of the chemicals that facilities have to report under the EPA's risk management plan program.

The facility did report ammonium nitrate on the Tier II Chemical Inventory Report required under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986. The Tier II forms detail the hazardous materials stored on site at facilities and are submitted to the local fire department, State Emergency Response Commissions, and Local Emergency Planning Committees. However, Tier II Chemical Inventory Reports are generally not available to the public, so it is unclear if local residents were aware of the risk associated with the large quantities of ammonium nitrate being stored at the West Fertilizer facility.

Improving the Public's Right to Know About the Risks in Their Communities

The purpose of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act was to give first responders and residents of communities with plants that produce or store hazardous chemicals access to information that would allow them to protect themselves and their families from disasters like the one that occurred last week. But 17 years after the passage of the law, local residents are often unaware of the actual risks of the chemicals that are being produced or stored near them; it seems first responders may still not be fully prepared for the emergencies that occur at industrial facilities involving dangerous substances.

In fact, a 10-year-old Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that EPA had reviewed only about 15 percent of required risk management plans in 2001 and did not know if the facilities with plans were sharing them with local responders. The Clean Air Act requires that risk management plans be submitted to the local agencies responsible for responding to chemical accidents but does not specify how this is to be accomplished.

As a result of the report, in 2004, EPA issued guidance on best practices for facilities to follow when providing information to the public about risks and emergency management plans. The guidance recommended extensive engagement with community residents when developing or revising risk management plans. It is unclear how many facilities follow this guidance.

In May 2011, based on a consultative process involving over 100 environmental and health and safety groups, we released An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know, which recommended that EPA, industry, and public officials should expand opportunities for public engagement on developing risk management plans and disclosing chemical risks. The report contained extensive recommendations for improving public access to environmental information and advocated for strengthening residents' right to know about the operations, chemicals, and risk management plans of facilities in their communities.

Conclusion

In the aftermath of the explosion, communities nationwide have voiced concerns about fertilizer production and distribution and other chemical-producing sites. In Iowa, for example, residents expressed concerns about three ammonia plants in several locations in the state, as well as existing nitrate facilities. A 1994 blast in an Iowa ammonium nitrate plant killed four and injured 18.

Communities and public interest organizations have been pushing for facilities to replace dangerous substances with safer chemicals for decades. And plants in some communities have heeded the call. In Michigan, ammonium nitrate (which was once commonly used in farming in the state) is "virtually nonexistent" thanks to a movement to encourage farmers to use safer alternative chemicals.

There are safer alternatives available, but change is unlikely to happen without a demand from local residents that pushes oversight authorities. If the tragedy in Texas heightens awareness of the real risks of certain chemicals and encourages other communities to ask questions, we might find something of value in this terrible tragedy.

Editor's note: This post has been updated since its original publication date.

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