The West Fertilizer Co. Factory Explosion – Lax Regulatory Oversight and Inadequate Disclosures Prove Fatal

  • By: Staff Editor
  • Date: May 01, 2013
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On April 17, 2013 an explosion ripped through the West Fertilizer Co. factory in West, Texas, killing 15 people and injuring 200 others. The US Senate has just announced a probe into why the explosion at the plant occurred. The incident has raised a number of questions regarding regulatory oversight, or lack thereof, governing the functioning of factories such as the West Fertilizer plant.
Lack of OSHA Inspections
One of the first things noted by those reporting and covering the explosion was that the last time the factory underwent an OSHA inspection was in 1985. In June 2011, according to The Huffington Post, the plant’s owner filed an emergency response plan with the EPA stating that there was no risk and did not include flammable chemicals.
A partial safety inspection in 2011 led to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) to the fine the company USD 5,250.
No Disclosure to the DHS
Reuters reported that the plant had been storing large amounts of ammonium nitrate within the premises – 1,350 times more to be exact. Such a large holding of this highly explosive fertilizer would normally have to be disclosed to the Department of Homeland Security. The regulations enforced as part of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS) say that any plant or depot that stores more than 400lb of ammonium nitrate will have to report this to the DHS.
A DHS spokesman stated that while the agency does oversee high risk chemical facilities, the West Fertilizer Co. plant was not regulated under the CFATS program.
A Complex Web of Regulations
The West Co. fertilizer plant had to comply with a number of regulations enforced by various state and Federal agencies. These included:
  • The DHS
  • The EPA
  • OSHA
  • US Department of Transportation
  • Texas Department of State Health Services
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
  • Office of the Texas State Chemist
It was with the Texas Department of State Health Services that the company filed reports stating that it was storing around 270 tons of ammonium nitrate at its plant. The complex web of regulations allowed the West fertilizer plant to go without reporting storing this hazardous chemical to the DHS or EPA. The EPA does not require companies to submit plans regarding storage and handling of ammonium nitrate as part of its Risk Management Program (RMP).
Safety Lessons for Industry
The West Fertilizer Co. explosion clearly highlights the need for more clarity in regulations. Regulatory compliance intersections between various agencies, lack of OSHA safety audits and failure to report storage of such a large amount of hazardous material to either the EPA or DHS proved to be a truly unfortunate mix for the plant and the town. The West Co. also seems in initial reports to have been vague about the storage of ammonium nitrate in its facility. ProPublica reported that since the company had told the EPA that there was no risk of a fire or explosion, OSHA didn’t inspect the facility. 
The announcement of a Senate hearing on the matter also shows that the government will be taking steps to crack down on the storage of explosive material such as ammonium nitrate in similar facilities across the country. Plants and factories should ensure they are following proper safety protocols when storing hazardous material and complying with CFATS, PHMSA regulations and the EPA’s RMP.

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