By ALISON SIDER
The US Chemical Safety Board said Thursday a West,
Texas, fertilizer facility that exploded earlier this year fell
between the cracks of the US safety regulation network that
needs to be updated.
"The CSB has determined that ammonium nitrate fertilizer
storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. safety standards and
guidance--a patchwork that has many large holes," chairman
Rafael Moure-Eraso told the US Senate Committee on Environment
and Public Works.
committee's meeting Thursday was prompted by a string of
industrial accidents in recent months -- the fertilizer
facility explosion in West, which killed at least 14 people in
April; an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Geismar, La.
that killed two workers, and a fire at Chevron's Richmond,
Calif. refinery last year.
In a report of preliminary findings released Thursday, the
CSB said the West explosion was caused by an intense fire in a
wooden warehouse building that led to the detonation of about
30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in wooden bins.
The building had no sprinklers or fire detection systems, so
the fire was "intense and out of control" by the time
firefighters were able to reach the site, the CSB said in its
preliminary findings report.
And volunteer firefighters were not made aware of the risk that
ammonium nitrate at the facility could explode --12
firefighters and emergency responders were killed when the
ammonium nitrate suddenly detonated while they were trying to
fight the initial blaze.
The storage conditions at the West facility did nothing to
mitigate the risk of a fire, but did not run afoul of existing
regulations, Mr. Moure-Eraso said. Other countries, like the
UK, recommend that buildings and bins where ammonium nitrate is
stored be noncombustible, he said.
"The fertilizer industry tells us that US sites commonly
store ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings and bins -- even
near homes, schools, or other vulnerable facilities. This situation must be
addressed," Mr. Moure-Eraso said.
A spokesman for West Fertilizer Co. declined to comment.
Facilities like the one in West fall outside of existing
federal process safety standards developed in the 1990s. Texas
and most counties have no mandatory fire code, and the West
facility did not have to comply with voluntary standards for
ammonium nitrate storage. Even those are out of date, the CSB
said in its report.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does
regulate how ammonium nitrate fertilizer is handled, the
agency's regulations don't go far enough -- allowing wooden
bins and buildings to be used for storage and only requiring
sprinklers to be installed where high volumes of ammonium
nitrate are stored, the CSB said.
Mr. Moure-Eraso said that in 2002, the CSB recommended to
the Environmental Protection Agency that it include reactive
chemicals, like ammonium nitrate, in its Risk Management Plan,
designed to prevent catastrophic environmental damage from
US Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) criticized the EPA for
not adopting that recommendation or taking steps to reduce the
risks posed by chemical facilities.
"I'm unsympathetic to the attitude I hear, which is a lack
of urgency. Lives are being lost, and recommendations were made
a long time ago, and nothing's happening," she said.
Sen. Boxer said the EPA can strengthen safety systems under
existing laws without new legislation.
Mr. Moure-Eraso also said federal agencies charged with
regulating and inspecting facilities for safety were "under
duress," without enough resources to devote to checking up on
the facilities they oversee. The CSB's
investigations into the West and Geismar incidents have
depleted the agency's resources, he said, and it cannot take on
any new investigative work.