The chemical explosion in a West, Texas, fertilizer plant that nearly leveled an entire city last April has prompted federal regulators to contact more than 7,000 agricultural retailers, distributors, producers, and other facilities that use potentially explosive fertilizers to remind them of the importance of safely storing and handling ammonium nitrate.
The April 17, 2013, blast at the West Fertilizer facility in West, Texas, killed 15 people, injured more than 200, and decimated parts of the city, including a school, nursing home, and hundreds of houses and businesses. Investigators determined that the company improperly stockpiled several tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used as an agricultural fertilizer. A fire erupted within the facility for reasons that remain unknown, and the chemical stockpile exploded as firefighters were battling the blaze.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the owners of the West Fertilizer Company with 24 serious safety violations for exposing workers to fire hazards, explosion hazards, chemical burns, and inhalation hazards.
Ammonium nitrate is so volatile and potentially explosive that businesses using moderate to large quantities of the chemical are required to report it to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. West Fertilizer, however, failed to notify federal authorities that it was storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would have subjected it regulatory safety oversight.
“The tragedy in West, Texas, and other incidents underscore the need for employers who store and handle hazardous substances like ammonium nitrate to ensure the safety of those materials – not just for workers at the facility but for the lives and safety of emergency responders and nearby residents,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety Dr. David Michaels in his letter to the companies. “I am calling on you today to take the necessary steps to prevent tragic ammonium nitrate incidents.”
The letter also cited other major disasters caused by fertilizer explosions and provided recipients with legal requirements and best practice recommendations for safely storing and handling ammonium nitrate.