Within minutes of a blaze starting at West Fertilizer Co. on the evening of April 17, residents a third of a mile away on Main Street in West, Texas, gathered in their front yards to watch firefighters at the plant.
“That’s what people in West do, because nothing exciting ever happens here,” Debbie Gerdes, 56, said in an interview. “I thought we were just going to sit here and watch them put out a fire.”
About 20 minutes later, Gerdes was thrown to her knees by an explosion at the facility, which stored ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The blast destroyed more than 100 homes and scattered debris as much as two miles from the epicenter. At least 14 people died, including 10 emergency workers, and 200 were injured in the worst U.S. industrial accident since 2010.
Had Gerdes lived near another kind of industrial installation, the outcome might have been better. Fertilizer plants like the one at West are exempt from federal regulations that enforce warning systems at other hazardous sites, an exception that’s being questioned by legislators. Oil refineries and chemical plants must warn residents of any danger in advance. Local officials are required to plan how to notify residents of an emergency.
No such measures were in place in West, a city of 2,800 located about 80 miles south of Dallas. West Fertilizer, which sat just outside the city limits, stored 270 tons of ammonium nitrate as of Dec. 31, according to a report from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The common fertilizer is such a powerful explosive that it’s been used in terrorist bombs.
According to recordings of emergency radio traffic the night of the fire, a police officer asked a dispatcher for an emergency contact at the plant. A plant manager arrived at the scene about 15 minutes after the fire was reported, recordings aired by television station WFAA indicate.
A few minutes later, the plant was gone, leaving a crater 93 feet by 10 feet (28 meters by 3 meters).
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, has said she’ll hold hearings to determine if U.S. chemical-safety laws need to be strengthened. The Department of Homeland Security may be able to enact tighter rules on ammonium nitrate under a 2007 law intended to prevent explosives from falling into the wrong hands, said Kathy Mathers, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Fertilizer Institute.
Still, it’s been almost six years since the law was passed and the department has yet to finalize its rules. None of the 16 Texas officials who testified in Austin May 1 at a state hearing on the West blast called for additional regulations.
It may take until May 24 to determine the cause of the fire, the Texas Insurance Department said in a May 6 statement. Investigators from the state fire marshal’s office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have conducted more than 400 interviews and reassembled pieces of the plant’s building, according to a May 7 pool report from the Associated Press.
Donald Adair, owner of West Fertilizer’s parent company Adair Grain Inc., declined to comment on emergency management plans at the plant, Daniel Keeney, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.
In contrast to West, warning sirens sounded within minutes of an Aug. 6 fire at Chevron Corp.’s Richmond, California, oil refinery. Contra Costa County’s early warning system automatically sent 18,800 phone calls alerting residents, telling them to stay in their homes.
Contra Costa’s system has an annual budget of about $1.2 million, paid for by the refineries and other businesses that handle hazardous materials, said Heather Tiernan, emergency planning coordinator the county sheriff’s office. The county also uses e-mail, websites and social media for alerts, which can be triggered by county officials and operators of six refineries and chemical plants in the area.
“As soon as someone recognizes that we need to use the systems, it takes seconds,” Tiernan said in an interview.
The federal law that established the warning systems, known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, was written in 1986, two years after a toxic gas cloud leaked from a Union Carbide Corp. pesticide plant and killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.
The law requires states and local governments to form Local Emergency Planning Committees, or LEPCs, to prepare for emergencies and warn residents when there’s a chemical release. The 1990 Clean Air Act requires plants to file detailed risk management plans for airborne pollutants. LEPCs are required to keep an inventory of chemicals in their community and provide it to people who ask for it.
West Fertilizer’s risk management report filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t list any potential airborne hazards, according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg News. The EPA fined West Fertilizer $2,300 in 2006, in part because it was two years late in filing the plan.
The rules on early warning systems are less stringent for plants that handle dry or powdered chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, since there’s less risk of them being released into the air.
“The largest part of what the LEPC does is being a clearinghouse for information,” said Gary Patterson, who heads McLennan County’s LEPC as its emergency management director. The West Fire Department was responsible for specific plans to deal with a fire at the plant, he said.
Officials don’t yet know if West firefighters had previously developed an emergency response plan with closely held Adair Grain, according to state Representative Joe Pickett, who led a May 1 legislative hearing on the incident. Five of the city’s 29 firefighters died, along with emergency medical workers and staff from nearby towns.=
West Mayor Tommy Muska said the fire department knew there was ammonium nitrate at the plant, though not the quantity. While the department had done emergency drills, it hadn’t drilled for a fire at the plant, Muska said in an April 24 interview.
The nearest fire hydrant was three blocks away, inside the city limits, Muska, who is also a firefighter, said in a May 8 interview.
“We wouldn’t have enough water even if it was inside the city limits to put that fire out,” he said. Firefighters were trying to retreat from the burning plant when it exploded, he said.
Gerdes, who has lived on Main Street in West for 20 years, and her neighbor Nancy Shelton, said they don’t remember hearing about any plans or public-information campaign to warn residents.
In hindsight, the danger seems obvious. The homes closest to the plant were flattened and some of them burned to the ground. The explosion blew out windows and doors and buckled roofs along Main Street. It collapsed the ceilings in Shelton’s house and embedded shards of glass in Gerdes’ bedroom wall. Three of the town’s schools were damaged and two of them may have to be permanently closed.
“If school had been in session, it would have just been horrible,” Shelton said.
The scale of the West disaster shows that even early warning systems aren’t enough and what’s really needed are rules requiring a buffer between chemical plants and homes, said Paul Orum, a consultant who wrote a report on chemical safety for the Center for American Progress.
Plants that can’t relocate could store hazardous materials in smaller quantities to reduce risk, he said.
A week after the explosion, Shelton was starting to agree with that viewpoint.
“There needs to be some type of federal regulation where you can’t have inhabited residences within so many feet or miles of a plant,” she said.
Muska said in a May 1 post on the city’s website that West Fertilizer should be rebuilt away from populated areas.
“It serves a vital purpose for the large farming population in this area,” he wrote. “Maybe just farther away from the city limits.”