Last week NBC News reported that West Fertilizer, whose plant exploded Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and leveling parts of the town of West, Texas, had a good safety record with federal safety regulators and a solid reputation with the people in town, most of whom share some connection to the plant and its employees. But factories with a history of good safety inspections shouldn’t just blow up like a nuclear bomb. So what happened?
New reports have emerged that West Fertilizer, a part of Adair Grain Inc., which is owned by Donald Adair, failed to tell authorities, as it is required to do by law, that it had been storing 1,350 times the amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that would ordinarily subject it to safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As a result, safety regulators had no idea that enough ammonium nitrate to level a town was packed into the West Fertilizer facility.
The substance is monitored and regulated by DHS authorities because it can be used to make bombs. Federal law requires any fertilizer plant or storage facility to report possession of 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate to DHS.
The deadly explosion may also highlight regulatory deficiencies and broken lines of communication between federal and state authorities. According to Reuters, the Texas Department of State Health Services had a record that West had 270 tons of the substance in storage last year, but that information was not shared with DHS.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS), a ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, issued a statement saying “It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid.
“This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up,” Mr. Thompson said.
Some safety violations West Fertilizer has on record are from 2006 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the company failed to update its risk management plan, which had been due in 2004. According to NBC News, “the EPA said it had poor employee training records, failed to document hazards, and didn’t have a written maintenance program.”
The West Fertilizer disaster also underscores regulatory enforcement problems. DHS authorities and other regulators have the authority to inspect facilities that use ammonium nitrate, but federal budget restrictions make it impossible for its limited staff to inspect the more than 4,000 companies that fall under the DHS rules. As a result, companies are responsible for telling the DHS how much ammonium nitrate and other regulated chemicals they hold. That information helps DHS assess risk for the reporting plants and draw security and safety plans around them.
Because DHS had no records of West Fertilizer storing giant volumes of ammonium nitrate, the company wasn’t on the department’s radar.
Investigators don’t know how the ammonium nitrate caught on fire, but they suspect it was some sort of industrial accident.
But despite regulatory deficiencies, blame for last week’s disaster will ultimately fall on West Fertilizer.
“I strongly believe that if the proper safeguards were in place, as are at thousands of (DHS) CFATS-regulated plants across the country, the loss of life and destruction could have been far less extensive,” Rep. Thompson said.