March 2016

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Petrochemicals: Investigation into West Fertilizer blast shows room for safety improvement

The final investigation report on the massive West Fertilizer Co. fire and explosion in 2013 serves notice to the chemical industry that, while progress has been made, significant gaps often still remain within site safety protocols.

DuBose, Ben, Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

The final investigation report on the massive West Fertilizer Co. fire and explosion in 2013 serves notice to the chemical industry that, while progress has been made, significant gaps often still remain within site safety protocols.

The fire and explosion on April 17, 2013, in West, Texas, resulted in 15 fatalities, more than 260 injuries and widespread community damage (Fig. 1). After investigating the incident for more than two years, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released its final incident report in early February.

 
  Fig. 1. The nearby community in West, Texas, suffered 
  extensive damage after the April 2013 explosion at the
  West Fertilizer Co. plant.

Many of its findings were quite jarring, to say the least.

What led to the explosion

The deadly incident occurred when about 30 tons of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) exploded after being heated by a fire at the storage and distribution facility.

On the night of the explosion, the CSB found that there was a stockpile of 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the facility in plywood bins. Though FGAN is stable under normal conditions, it can violently detonate when exposed to contaminants in a fire.

“This tragic accident should not have happened,” said Vanessa Allen Sutherland, CSB chairperson. “We hope that by sharing lessons learned from our West Fertilizer investigation, we will help raise awareness of the hazards of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate.”

The CSB is an independent US federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents. While the board does not issue citations or fines, it regularly makes safety recommendations to companies, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies.

Lack of community awareness

The CSB also found that several factors contributed to the severity of the explosion, including poor hazard awareness and the fact that nearby homes and businesses were built in close proximity to the plant over the years prior to the accident.

“We found that, as the city of West crept closer and closer to the facility, the surrounding community was not made aware of the serious explosion hazard in their midst,” said Johnnie Banks, team lead for the CSB’s investigators. “West Fertilizer Co. underestimated the danger of storing fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate in ordinary combustible structures.”

Investigators concluded that this lack of awareness was due to several factors, including gaps in federal regulatory coverage of ammonium nitrate storage facilities.

Subpar emergency planning

Finally, the CSB also said that inadequate emergency planning contributed to the tragic accident. Investigators found that the West Volunteer Fire Department was not required to perform pre-incident planning for an ammonium-nitrate-related emergency, nor were the volunteer firefighters required to attend training on responding to fires involving hazardous chemicals.

As a result, the CSB made several safety recommendations to various stakeholders, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to better inform and train emergency responders on the hazards.

More specifics in video

The specific safety recommendations and proposed policy changes by the CSB are available in a 12-minute video posted on the HPInformer blog at HydrocarbonProcessing.com.

The video, entitled “Dangerously Close: Explosion in West, Texas,” includes a 3D animation of the fire and explosion, as well as interviews with CSB investigators and chairperson Sutherland.

While the damage in West has already been done, the CSB’s hope is that the publicity from this investigation and its findings can reduce the potential for similar incidents in the future.

“The CSB’s goal is to ensure that no one else be killed or injured due to a lack of awareness of hazardous chemicals in their communities,” Ms. Sutherland said. “If adopted, the board’s recommendations can help prevent disasters like the one in West, Texas.” HP

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