A Year After Texas Explosion, Federal Report Outlines Progress on Fertilizer Safety

According to a new government report to the president 14 months after last year's massive explosion in West, Texas, much needs to be done to encourage safe practices when storing volatile fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer industry, while discouraging new regulation, says it's taking steps to deal with the problem.

Last April, an unusually powerful explosion shook the town of West, Texas—and the fertilizer industry as a whole.

The explosion of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate at West Fertilizer Company (caught in the video above) killed 15 people, injured 226, and left a small town in tatters. Fourteen months later, a joint report from half a dozen federal agencies, prepared for the president in response to an August 2013 executive order and released last week, outlines priorities and next steps for continuing to enhance safe handling and storage of chemicals. More details:

A far-reaching report: “Actions to Improve Chemical Facility Safety and Security—A Shared Commitment” summarizes progress made by a special working group assembled last year, including representatives of six federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Labor, Homeland Security, Justice, Agriculture, and Transportation.”While we can never fully eliminate risks at chemical facilities, stakeholders can take actions to further reduce and mitigate these risks,” the report states [PDF]. The report outlines the structural failures, training gaps, and regulatory loopholes around the storage of regulated chemicals. It offers several solutions, including the creation of an alliance among the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the fertilizer industry, emergency-response organizations, and the working group agencies to promote the use of best storage practices for ammonium nitrate. The report also suggests promoting alternatives to the volatile explosive.

The industry responds: Reacting to the report, the Fertilizer Institute (TFI) emphasized the industry’s self-regulatory efforts, including the recent launch of a nonprofit, ResponsibleAg, designed to help fertilizer dealers comply with existing federal regulations. “Getting ResponsibleAg up and running is the industry’s top priority,” TFI President Chris Jahn said in a statement. “We are moving quickly to develop a curriculum and [to create] a facility for use in training ResponsibleAg auditors. We anticipate that the first auditor training session will be held in October of this year and the first retail facility audits will be held in early 2015.” The institute also noted its safety and storage guidelines for fertilizer and emphasized that the industry supports “reasonable regulation.” The American Chemistry Council, meanwhile, told The Wall Street Journal that it opposes new regulations, arguing that it would be better to promote existing rules.

The report comes just days after a fire at a fertilizer plant in Athens, Texas—less than 100 miles from West. Unlike in West, there was no explosion. Officials in Athens said they used the lessons from West in their approach to putting out the blaze.

An aerial view of the aftermath of last year's fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. (photo by Shane Torgerson/Wikimedia Commons)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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