Recent NC Fire Shines Light on Gaps in Ammonium Nitrate Regulation That No Longer Can be Ignored
With the flames of a North Carolina January 31 fertilizer plant fire now safely extinguished, it’s now time for local, state, and federal officials to focus on fixing the holes that govern ammonium nitrate (AN) storage and handling. On April 17, 2013, a fire in Texas led to the detonation of about 30 tons of AN and the deaths of 15 people, along with the injury of hundreds more, and major destruction to the town of West. Nine years later, the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina came dangerously close to experiencing the same fate. The fact that fate was avoided should not mean we avoid addressing this issue.
In its final report on the West, Texas tragedy, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) observed, “This is not to say that West is an anomaly. Many communities in Texas and nationwide are located too close to facilities resembling the [West Fertilizer Company] plant.” The Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant is exactly the situation the CSB was referring to.
Like the facility in West, the North Carolina plant began operating mid-century, surrounded by farmers’ fields and few neighbors. Over time, homes, businesses, and other buildings sprung up around it as the town grew. The pattern, both in West and in Winston-Salem is not unique. The American Farmland Trust reports that over 11 million acres of U.S. farmland have been developed over the last 20 years, putting homes and suburban infrastructure next to facilities that manufacture, store, and sell fertilizers and other chemicals. Local planners in places like Winston-Salem, which grew by around 8 percent over the last 10 years, must recognize this hazard and limit development around these locations to compatible uses, like warehouses, not homes and school.
When the fire broke out at the Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant, the fire department promptly called for an evacuation of the surrounding neighborhoods, fearing the detonation of the plant’s 600 tons of AN. Over 6,500 people left their homes in the middle of the night. In addition to a well-prepared fire department though, towns and cities have another tool to save lives and property from hazardous materials like AN—the fire code.
When handled and stored properly, AN can be stable. But, when exposed to fire, there is a significant danger of a powerful explosion (see for instance, the recent blast that leveled a portion of Beirut, Lebanon). Recognizing, as the CSB did, that the hazard present in West, Texas was not unique, the technical committee that develops NFPA 400, the National Fire Protection Association’s Hazardous Materials Code, determined fire sprinkler systems in these facilities is a must. They voted in 2015 to make the installation of sprinkler and fire detection systems in new and existing facilities a requirement of the accepted minimum level of safety for any building with over 1000 pounds of AN. The NFPA fire code, NFPA 1, refers users to NFPA 400 for facilities storing AN, and expressly enables the relevant authority to enforce construction requirements—like sprinklers systems—retroactively when warranted by dangerous conditions.
Unfortunately, in many places, the laws in place are not this proactive. In the case of Winston-Salem, the North Carolina state fire code does not require facilities like Winston Weaver to meet NFPA 400’s requirements. However, the fire that occurred on January 31st should prompt the North Carolina legislature to require NFPA 400’s retroactive fire protection requirements, especially where an explosion poses a risk to surrounding homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and other community facilities. It should also prompt the North Carolina Building Code Council to amend the state fire code to include the NFPA 400 requirements. Even if the state does not act though, local governments in North Carolina are not powerless. State law permits local jurisdictions to adopt their own fire code provisions so long as those provisions are stricter than those promulgated by the state.
In addition to ensuring fire code protection, the CSB made a number of other recommendations to reduce the risk of another West-type catastrophe. For one, state legislatures could enact laws that would require facilities like the Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant to hold general liability insurance policies commensurate with the risk they pose to their surroundings. The CSB investigation revealed that four years before the explosion, West Fertilizer Company (WFC) was dropped by its insurance carrier for failure to address a number of safety concerns identified by the insurer’s inspection process. The $1 million general liability policy WFC turned to instead came with minimal safety inspections. After the explosion, the policy was woefully inadequate to redress the $230 million-plus damage to the town and its residents. More stringent insurance requirements would motivate greater due diligence in identifying and controlling hazards.
At the federal level, CSB made recommendations to several agencies. Among those was a call to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to add AN to the list of chemicals covered in its Risk Management Program (RMP). Developed in the 1990s, the RMP regulations require facilities handling listed chemicals to assess the potential worst-case scenarios for communities beyond the fence line, implement hazard controls, and report on these to the agency. As the CSB pointed out, AN’s reactivity, its potential to cause high loss of life, and its presence in high volumes at sites across the country all favor its inclusion on the RMP list.
Unfortunately, nearly a decade after the West incident, many of these recommendations remain open. Texas did not adopt stricter insurance requirements and the EPA still hasn’t added AN to the list of chemicals covered by the RMP. However, the EPA’s announced plans to improve health and safety conditions for people living in fence line communities presents an ideal opportunity to revisit how we handle and store AN, and other hazardous materials, and reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents for all communities. North Carolina too must not wait to identify other AN hazards in the state and enact the policies discussed here to prevent another close call—or worse.
 U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Investigation Report: West Fertilizer Company Fire & Explosion, January 2016, p 223.
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