The Chemical Safety Board issues its final report on the West, Texas, AN explosion
BY JESSE ROMAN
BETTER OVERSIGHT, REGULATION AND TRAINING could have prevented the tragic explosion in the town of West, Texas, that killed 15 people and injured 260, according to a final report on the incident from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB).
At least 40 tons of ammonium nitrate (AN) violently exploded during a fire at the West Fertilizer Company in April 2013. The blast, which left a crater 100 feet across and 10 feet deep, obliterated the facility and damaged or destroyed hundreds of surrounding structures, including homes, schools, and a nursing home.
The CSB report, which did not definitively rule on the cause of the fire that led to the explosion, criticized local, state, and federal regulators for a lack of oversight and regulation of the facility. Texas’s failure to adopt a fire code meant the West fertilizer storage facility was subject to little or no oversight, and had few rules governing its operation, upkeep, or fire safety, the report said. The wooden warehouse and bins the facility used to store the ammonium nitrate “not only assisted in the rapid spread of the fire but also increased the sensitivity of the material that led to the detonation,” the report said. The facility also did not have a fire detection system or sprinklers. Either could have prevented the disaster, the CSB report said.
At the time of the incident, the West facility was not obliged to comply with NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code—which provides requirements for the bulk storage of AN— because Texas had not adopted the code. Even if it had, the 2013 edition of NFPA 400 did not require existing facilities like West Fertilizer, built in 1961, to retroactively install sprinklers or alarms. That fact and other lessons from the incident led to a series of changes to the 2016 edition of NFPA 400, including a requirement for existing facilities constructed with combustible materials to retroactively install sprinklers, fire detection, and alarms. The CSB met twice with the NFPA Technical Committee on Hazardous Chemicals during the revision process. “The final version of the code hit all of their hot-button issues,” said Guy Colonna, manager of NFPA’s Industrial and Chemical Engineering Division.
A detailed overview of the changes made to the 2016 edition of NFPA 400 can be found in the “Safer Storage” article in the May/June 2015 issue of NFPA Journal.
While the CSB noted the “significant effort” the NFPA technical committee made to update NFPA 400 in the aftermath of West, it had a more sobering assessment of the efforts of Texas regulators. The report noted the continued absence of a state fire code, and said that three years after the West explosion “the risk to the public from a catastrophic incident (still) exists at least within the state of Texas, if not more broadly.”
The report also pointed to a lack of local and national rules on the location of chemical facilities as a problem that poses a public danger. For instance, 19 facilities in Texas currently store more than five tons of ammonium nitrate within a half mile of a school, hospital, or nursing home, the report said.
While it may be unrealistic to think sprinklers will be installed at these facilities tomorrow, there are simple steps that can be taken to better protect communities, Colonna said. “Better information sharing by those facilities will give communities and first responders a better idea that those materials exist,” he said, “so that they can be better trained and prepared.”