At around 7:30 p.m. on April 17, 2013, emergency dispatchers received reports of smoke and flames at the West Fertilizer Company’s storage and distribution center in the town of West, Texas (population 2,800), located on Interstate 35 just up the road from Waco. Firefighters from the town’s volunteer fire department rushed to the scene, where the fire seemed to be quickly intensifying. Neighbors who lived nearby, including many residents of the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, located just 200 yards (183 meters) from the West Fertilizer facility, gazed at the fiery spectacle. The nursing home was close enough to the billowing smoke that the facility’s staff began moving residents to more protected areas inside the building to avoid the hazard.
A crew of 22 emergency responders arrived at the site and, assisted by two West residents, attempted to douse the flames. The fire was large and getting bigger, and it was in the process of engulfing a wooden warehouse. The structure was comprised of wood-framed bins with wooden walls and contained approximately 60 tons of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate, a granular solid that can detonate in certain conditions when it interacts with fire. Built in 1961, the building lacked automatic sprinklers or suppression features and was not required to install them, since Texas lacks a state fire code. There were no state regulations guiding appropriate storage amounts of the fertilizer. The facility was unattended at the time of the fire.
About 20 minutes after the fire was reported, the ammonium nitrate detonated, producing an enormous explosion that pulverized much of the West Fertilizer site and sent chunks of concrete, wood, and steel hurtling into the surrounding neighborhoods. The explosion’s shockwave rocked the entire town. The blast was heard 80 miles away and registered a magnitude 2.1 tremor that was recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey. At the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, the windows shattered and the roof collapsed, trapping scores of elderly residents beneath the rubble. Across the street from the nursing home, the West Terrace apartment complex was shredded by the explosion. A half-mile from the blast site, the West Middle School suffered major damage, as did the West Intermediate School. Nearly 200 homes were damaged or destroyed.
The explosion killed 15 people: 10 firefighters, ranging in age from 26 to 52; their two civilian helpers; two residents from the West Terrace apartment complex; and a nursing home resident. About 200 people were injured. Many of the impacted structures — including the two schools, the nursing home, and the apartment complex — have since been demolished. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which has released preliminary findings on the incident and is working on a final report, estimates that total damages could exceed $230 million. The cause of the fire has not been determined; in its preliminary findings, the CSB said that “the explosion resulted from an intense fire … that led to the detonation of” the stored ammonium nitrate.
Last June, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chair of the CSB, appeared at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “I visited West … a couple weeks after the explosion,” he told the committee. “The damage to homes, schools, and businesses was almost beyond imagination, even by the standards of large-scale chemical disasters. I can assure you that it will be years before even the physical scars of this terrible explosion begin to fade.” At its website, csb.gov, the CSB documents the West disaster, and includes a video where Daniel Horowitz, CSB’s managing director, calls the West incident “the worst of any chemical accident in CSB’s history.”
U.S. agencies with a stake in chemical storage safety are using NFPA as a resource to learn about what happened in West. The CSB and other organizations are working with the Technical Committee on Hazardous Chemicals (responsible for NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code) to try to incorporate the lessons learned into the code’s 2016 edition. The requirements of NFPA 400 focus primarily on new facilities, meaning that even if it was adopted, many of the code provisions would not have applied to the West facility. A new NFPA 400 task group is determining requirements for existing facilities, among other topics. (See “Safety List,”)
West prompted an executive order by President Barack Obama directing the federal government to improve safety and security at chemical facilities, and the Department of Homeland Security has sought the assistance of NFPA as part of its efforts to carry out that order. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also answered calls to action from the president and CSB by taking part in a working group, including the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), that is addressing chemical facility safety.
The activity is timely and necessary, since the potential for another disaster extends far beyond West, Texas. The EPA estimates that 13,000 facilities similar to West Fertilizer pose threats to communities throughout the U.S.
MAGNITUDE: At center, observers in orange vests stand just opposite the epicenter of the blast, which bent the railroad tracks, covered the neighboring playing fields with debris, and left a crater nearly 100 feet across and 10 feet deep. Inset, a map of the blast impact based on an assessment by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Nearly every home or structure within the 1,500-foot radius was damaged or destroyed. (Aerial photograph by Corbis Graphic by NFPA using Google Maps. Imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe, Greater Waco Chamber, Texas Orthoimagery Program. Map data ©2014 Google.)
Knowing the risks
The West disaster was a wakeup call for Chris Connealy, the Texas state fire marshal. The blast “had a profound impact on the community of West,” says Connealy, 55, a 36-year member of the Texas fire service who was appointed fire marshal in June 2012. “The financial and emotional costs have been huge. Along with NFPA, we’re trying to do everything we can to reinforce and create new best practices to avoid another situation like what happened in West. There are some challenges out there … but as a society you have to have some regulatory requirements to make sure people follow at least some semblance of best practices to minimize the risk.”
Less than two weeks after the explosion, Connealy’s office contacted NFPA for information on chemical facility safety, particularly provisions found in the 2013 edition of NFPA 400. The code applies to the storage, handling, and use of many hazardous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. NFPA 490, Storage of Ammonium Nitrate, had addressed these topics, but the code was withdrawn in 2009 and its provisions incorporated into the 2010 edition of NFPA 400 — its first edition — which addresses an array of chemicals.
Since ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound commonly used as a fertilizer, comes in different forms, code requirements vary based on its composition. A purer form of the compound, for example, would require more controls than a blended version, since the compound has a higher degree of hazard when undiluted. (The West facility blended fertilizers for retail customers and did not manufacture the product at the site.) The EPA, along with OSHA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, issued a chemical advisory last August on the storage, handling, and management of ammonium nitrate. The advisory notes that the substance can fuel an explosion since it is a powerful oxidizer and rich in nitrate, and its presence near fuel or heat is a “very high-hazard situation.”
According to the CSB, ammonium nitrate accounts for about two percent of the total applied nitrogen fertilizer in the U.S., but it has contributed to some of the most disastrous chemical accidents of the past century, one of them being an eerily similar explosion in Texas City, Texas, in 1947. It was also a component of the domestic terrorist bomb used to destroy a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 more.
Due to its uniqueness, ammonium nitrate is the only chemical or agent in NFPA 400 that has its own chapter. Among the code requirements in Chapter 11 are provisions for storage, sprinklers, and maximum allowable quantity — the threshold quantity of a chemical that, once exceeded, requires additional controls or construction requirements. “Ammonium nitrate has unique properties that make it more of a challenge to wrap your head around,” says Nancy Pearce, staff liaison for NFPA 400. “It can be very innocuous and no problem whatsoever. But when you have a fire and confinement, that’s when you can possibly get deflagration and detonation. Situations can occur that can make it more hazardous than we had expected it to be. The committee is currently learning more about ammonium nitrate and any new requirements needed for its different forms.”
Last year, the chair of the Technical Committee on Hazardous Chemicals formed the Ammonium Nitrate Task Group to develop new language for chemical storage safety in NFPA 400, including new provisions addressing chemical storage safety in existing facilities. The group consists of NFPA 400 committee members along with representatives of government agencies, including the CSB and OSHA, and industry associations such as the Agricultural Retailers Association and The Fertilizer Institute. CSB’s preliminary findings from its investigation indicate that no code provision prohibits the storage of ammonium nitrate in wooden bins housed in wooden facilities similar to West Fertilizer. In fact, according to the CSB, housing ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings is the norm in the U.S.
As part of his efforts to address these issues, Connealy has voiced his support for a state fire code in accordance with NFPA 1, Fire Code.
He also joined the NFPA 400 technical committee last November at the invitation of Pearce. “It has been helpful to get an understanding of NFPA 400, and it shed some light on the challenges [at chemical facilities],” Connealy says. “I expect there will be some significant changes to the code post-West.” The task group is expected to submit a draft revision of Chapter 11 and related provisions for public comment by May and will report all of the recommendations to the committee during its August meeting.
Joining the NFPA 400 committee is just part of Connealy’s activism, work that could impact chemical facility safety nationwide.
Since the West explosion, Connealy has become the state’s traveling evangelist for chemical storage safety. He and his team have gone county-by-county giving presentations to emergency responders, city planners, facility managers, and others on chemical storage practices and incident response tactics. The areas where he has chosen to proselytize are not random selections; his office has identified more than 100 facilities in 68 counties throughout Texas with large quantities — 10,000 pounds or more—of ammonium nitrate. As of February, Connealy had given seven presentations in seven counties — “with 61 more to go,” he says, with a slight chuckle and dogged assurance. Residents can also access a newly developed map at the state fire marshal’s website, tdi.texas.gov/fire, that lets them know if a chemical storage facility exists in their ZIP code. “It’s been popular for the public to ascertain what’s in their community,” says Connealy.
In addition, Connealy’s office conducted voluntary inspections last year at 134 Texas facilities that house ammonium nitrate, and sent them the document “References Related to Best Practices — Storing of Ammonium Nitrate” that includes information on NFPA 704, Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response. The standard says, among other things, that warning placards identifying potentially hazardous contents should be placed on at least two sides of any building storing hazardous materials and at each primary means of access into the building.
But the most serious problems Connealy encounters in his inspections go beyond the scope of an identification standard. In Connealy’s opinion, two of the top deficiencies he has found at these facilities are that they are built with combustible materials, primarily wood, and that they lack sprinklers. The current codes do not prohibit combustible construction materials, and they do not clearly define which facilities should be sprinklered.
Part of the solution, Connealy argues, is the adoption of a statewide fire code. Texas is just one of two states — Missouri is the other — without a statewide fire code, and Connealy supports the idea of conducting inspections in accordance with NFPA 1, which references NFPA 400. However, the Texas Legislature has to approve this measure before Connealy can enforce compliance. A likelier action in the short term, he says, is more stringent regulations for chemical facilities. In preparation for the state’s 2015 legislative session — Texas holds sessions every other year — and in response to the West incident, Republican House Speaker Joe Straus has tasked the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety with investigating deficiencies in safety, risk management, and disaster planning at chemical facilities. The committee will also determine if changes should be made to existing laws or rules on inspection, investigation, or enforcement.
In the meantime, Connealy is pushing for NFPA 1 adoption that doesn’t require legislative action. He’s received support from various stakeholders and agencies to inspect 16,000 state owned and operated buildings — prisons, state hospitals, and universities, to name a few — in accordance with NFPA 1. Adhering to the state’s rulemaking process, Connealy expects to receive the approval for the adoption by this summer.
“The event in West has had implications far beyond that community,” says Connealy. “We are working very closely with the CSB, the Department of Homeland Security, and other state partners to prevent another West from happening again. I feel strongly that we have a duty. No other community should endure this type of disaster.”
The nation responds
Texas officials weren’t the only ones who felt compelled to act after the West explosion. Last August, President Obama signed an executive order tasking the federal government with improving the safety of chemical facilities and reducing risks to neighboring communities. Among the directives is enhancing coordination among federal agencies and initiating approaches that identify high-risk facilities, inspections, and enforcement. Specifically addressing ammonium nitrate, the executive order directs agencies to examine the storage, handling, and sale of this material. The Department of Homeland Security’s Infrastructure Security Compliance Division contacted NFPA to determine which of its codes and standards might assist with its directives. Pearce, staff liaison for NFPA 400, supplied the department with information on the code.
The CSB has commended the government’s efforts, but it has also voiced the need for swifter action. In a January op-ed in The New York Times, CSB chair Moure-Eraso cites the “complicated” and “time-consuming” aspects of regulatory reform, and urges the EPA to use its power under the Clean Air Act to require chemical facility owners and operators to identify hazards as well as design and maintain safer facilities. “I am strongly encouraged by the White House leadership on this issue,” Moure-Eraso writes. “The EPA is working with other agencies to comply. But in the meantime, the agency has the authority to act now, on its own, to require inherently safer design, equipment, and processes that would go a long way toward preventing more catastrophes.”
The EPA says it has responded to the executive order by taking part in a Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group comprised of representatives from the EPA, Department of Homeland Security, OSHA, and other sectors. The group recently released a preliminary list for improving chemical safety and security options that is now out for public comment. The options specifically consider the improvement of risk management practices at chemical facilities as well as the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate.
“We have engaged industry to identify hazards and are looking at their existing programs and activities to see how they can be advanced,” the EPA said in a statement to NFPA Journal.
“We have also heard from local emergency responders. They have important needs such as preparedness, capacity preparedness, and ready access to critical information that needs to be addressed.”
Nobody is more aware of these needs than Connealy, especially when he thinks of the impact of West on his fellow firefighters. “This incident was the third-highest line-of-duty death toll for firefighters in state history,” he says. “That’s horrific. We have to continue to learn how to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate. That’s the bottom line.”