TX Fertilizer Plant Failed to Disclose Hazardous Materials

Here’s one likely reason why the explosion at that fertilizer factory in West, Texas was so massive. According to Reuters, the company had failed to report stores of ammonium nitrate that were more than 1300 times more than they were supposed to have without DHS oversight.

The fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate – which can also be used in bomb making – unaware of any danger there.

Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.

A U.S. congressman and several safety experts called into question on Friday whether incomplete disclosure or regulatory gridlock may have contributed to the disaster.

“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”

And according to earlier reports, the plant had not been inspected for many years. This is what happens when you put people in charge of the government who don’t think the government should be doing this kind of oversight and put people into office who believe that and vote for lower funding for such enforcement. It isn’t some academic debate, if there isn’t oversight on operations like this, people die.

37 comments on this post.
  1. Doug Little:

    Roll out the libertarian perspective in 3…2…1 Go.

  2. Gregory in Seattle:

    When large businesses file with their state about dangers like this, and the Department of Homeland Security still remains ignorant of the facts, what can we expect them to do about terrorists?

    Other than throw the Bill of Rights out the window and conduct forced-entry searches of private homes by paramilitary personnel, that is.

  3. jamessweet:

    One thing that struck me is that the plant did not have any sort of blast walls, which I guess is standard practice when you are storing that amount of explosive material. That really raises a red flag for me, as a relatively easy-to-understand (if costly) measure that would have saved a lot of lives.

    In a way, it reminds me of Chernobyl: If the Soviets had just built a decent containment shell around the plant, even with all the other shit they did wrong the disaster would have been relatively contained. Workers may have perished, but the harm to the public and the contamination of the surrounding land would have been mostly prevented. Having a decent containment shell is Nuclear Power 101.

    I don’t know enough about storing ammonium nitrate, but it seems like if you are going to have a quantity of explosive capable of making a bang that big, having blast walls would appear to be a no-brainer. It is probably not the only issue we are facing here: The plant may have been engaging in other dangerous practices that contributed to the fire and subsequent explosion, and furthermore even if they had blast walls, it’s not unlikely that some workers and/or emergency responders might have been killed in the explosion. But the death toll (not to mention the massive damage to surrounding property) would undoubtedly have been lower.

    Moral of the story: If you’ve got some shit that might blow up, put a freakin’ wall around it.

  4. snafu:

    The DHS did not know that a fertilizer plant has large quantities of ammonium nitrate? Does the DHS expect terrorists to register their ammonium nitrate now?

  5. democommie:

    My bad* math skilz notwithstanding, the amount of ammonium nitrate in the Murrah Building bomb was (very roughly) about 1 to 1-1/2% of what was in storage (when reported) in the warehouse in West, TX.

    So, the problem seems to be (just a moment while I don my liberpublican nonthinking cap) that excessive gummint regulatin’ is makin’ it hard for people to buy fertilizer. If it wasn’t so hard for people to buy niggling amounts of the stuff (up to say, 5 tons) for “personal use” that stuff coulda been in storage units all over the GMPH**. Once again, Free Market solutions to Free Market problems; when will you small minded liebrals ever learn?

    “Other than throw the Bill of Rights out the window and conduct forced-entry searches of private homes by paramilitary personnel, that is.”

    Sorry, Gregory, but that little rant moves you right up to the TOP of the list!

    * “bad” as in “the suck”.

    ** Glorious MurKKKan Patriotesticular Heartland

  6. Didaktylos:

    It’s obvious what happened – the Tsarnaev brothers obtained their explosive from the cash and carry department of West Fertilisers. The plant was blown up to destroy the evidence …

  7. matty1:

    If they reported to the state that suggests they weren’t trying to hide the amount of fertilizer at the plant so I can’t understand why they didn’t also tell DHS. Did they assume records are shared, not want to do the paperwork twice or is there some other issue I’m unaware of?

  8. Raging Bee:

    It’s Bhopal, or it’s the Khmer Rouge! No middle ground! So shut up, thats’ why!

    Other than throw the Bill of Rights out the window and conduct forced-entry searches of private homes by paramilitary personnel, that is.

    How about regular inspections of industrial properties? We can do that without throwing the Bill of Rights out the window. (Besides, we’ve already thrown it out the window for poor people’s property and all women’s bodies, so that’s all the pretext we need for arbitrary searches of rich people’s property.)

  9. dschultz:

    Somebody got the math wrong. The trigger level for ammonium nitrate is 2,000 pounds not 400. It is 400 pounds only if it is mixed (or contaminated) with a fuel. This is in Appendix A of Part 27.

    In any case, DHS is only worried about theft so the most that they would have required is extra security which would have impacted this event not at all.

    NFPA 400 which includes standards for the storage of ammonium nitrate wouldn’t have limited the amount even if the town of West had adopted them. Which they hadn’t.

    The limits on storage amounts in NFPA 400 are on the size of piles (20′X20′X50′ or about 600 tons) and you can have more than one. (Piles can be even larger than that if you have sprinklers or the building is constructed of non-combustible materials.

  10. raven:

    PZ Myers called that our glorious Libertarian future.

    1. The plant hadn’t been inspected in 3 decades by the relevant agencies concerned with storing large amounts of explosives.

    2. Zoning. Apparently the town did have a zoning board and zoning regulations. They weren’t much. What they did is build 3 schools and a retirement home around the plant.

    I have no idea why they did that. Maybe the land was cheap because no one wanted to put in a housing subdivision around a potential time bomb.

    The thinking here is murky. Let’s use our kids as human shields just in case the plant blows up.

  11. Raging Bee:

    In any case, DHS is only worried about theft so the most that they would have required is extra security which would have impacted this event not at all.

    OSHA and FEMA would have had other concerns, more relevant to this disaster, if they had been informed and had access to the plant. And FEMA is part of DHS! Wasn’t DHS created to ensure that vital security-related information gets shared among all responsible agencies?

  12. Ben P:

    2. Zoning. Apparently the town did have a zoning board and zoning regulations. They weren’t much. What they did is build 3 schools and a retirement home around the plant.

    I have no idea why they did that. Maybe the land was cheap because no one wanted to put in a housing subdivision around a potential time bomb.

    The thinking here is murky. Let’s use our kids as human shields just in case the plant blows up.

    Living in a town of 2200 people (I commute) I can say it probably just didn’t occur to them. After all, it hadn’t blown up in the past. The land close to town is available and land outside of town would probably require buying someone’s field/pasture.

    My little town does have an office that checks building codes and handles “zoning” but we certainly don’t have zoning classes that would prohibit agricultural/industrial facilities from being built next to residential areas. My little “subdivision” (using the word very loosely, a dozen houses on a side road) is sandwiched between two sets of soybean fields. There’s a small fertilizer distribution plant on the other side of town here too, and there is stuff built close to it.

  13. D. C. Sessions:

    The trigger level for ammonium nitrate is 2,000 pounds not 400.

    Although the 400 number is totally ludicrous, the 2000 is still pretty silly. My local Home Depot’s garden section has pallet loads of the stuff in 40-pound bags that come to a good fraction of that each.

    As for the “blast wall:” $HERSELF was visiting a fertilizer plant in Argentina in the 80s. A long drive from the nearest town, it had a berm around it more than five meters high to deflect any explosive force upwards rather than out. Berms aren’t all that terribly expensive, people. A modest amount of earth moving equipment for a few days does the trick.

  14. Larry:

    I can’t get over the fact that the town built schools and a retirement home near this place. I realize zoning regulations are like Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Stalin, but come on! I imagine the only thing they wouldn’t allow near the plant would be gun stores.

  15. D. C. Sessions:

    My little town does have an office that checks building codes and handles “zoning” but we certainly don’t have zoning classes that would prohibit agricultural/industrial facilities from being built next to residential areas.

    The plat has been there for more than 40 years. The town expanded up to it. Interestingly, the town seems to have grown towards the plant.

  16. Adam:

    This was discussed on the Diane Rehm show on Tuesday, listening to the show will give you a good idea how bad the communication is between the different groups regulating these facilities. At 08:50 a representative of an association of agricultural retailers (though this company wasn’t part of the association) said that some of their plants have submitted the required plans to the DHS and have never heard back from them.

  17. blf:

    Somebody got the math wrong. The trigger level for ammonium nitrate is 2,000 pounds not 400. It is 400 pounds only if it is mixed (or contaminated) with a fuel.

    Yes, that seems to be the case. From Federal Register Volume 72, Number 223 (Tuesday, November 20, 2007; Pages 65396-65435), where AN is “Ammonium Nitrate”, ACQ is “A Commercial Grade”, and STQ is “Screening Threshold Quantity”:

    3. Ammonium Nitrate (AN)
    In proposed Appendix A, the Department identified only one form of
    ammonium nitrate (nitrogen concentration of 28%-34%) and set the STQ at
    2,000 pounds. Based on the consideration of comments, the Department
    has revised its approach in this final appendix, identifying AN in two
    forms: (1) The DOT Division 1.1 explosive found in 49 CFR 172.101 and
    (2) the more common form frequently used as a fertilizer. DHS assigned
    a STQ to each form.

    \53\ Where AN as an explosive presents a theft-EXP/IEDP security
    issue, the STQ is 400 pounds, and a facility is expected to include
    all amounts of ACG of AN when determining whether it meets or
    exceeds the STQ.

    The second entry for AN in the appendix addresses the more common
    form of AN in solid form with a nitrogen concentration of 23% or
    greater. This form of AN is largely used in the agricultural community
    and in amounts that typically exceed 400 pounds (the STQ for all other
    theft/diversion-EXP/IEDP chemicals). Given the circumstances
    surrounding its use (i.e., extensive use in the agricultural industry),
    DHS has set the STQ for this form of AN at 2,000 pounds.

    This confusion not withstanding, it still seems the facility should have told DHS.

  18. Pierce R. Butler:

    When 270 tons of unshielded ammonium nitrate are outlawed, only outlaws will have 270 tons of unshielded ammonium nitrate!

  19. Modusoperandi:

    After this accident, Texas is bringing in tough new laws. They’ve reclassified places like these as vaginas.

  20. wscott:

    The fact that the company hadn’t properly reported to DHS is bad. But honestly, even if they had I’m not sure it would’ve affected the outcome. As dschultz pointed out, DHS is mainly focused on security, not safety; plus they have so few inspectors it might have been years before anyone actually looked at them. (Yes, DHS is a huge agency, but mainly because they have so many “subordinate” agencies, all of whom have other responsibilities.) So if they had reported, they would’ve been a datapoint in a DHS database somewhere, but I’m not sure how much of a difference that would’ve made.
    .
    Not to go all Federalist here, but tracking these types of facilities and planning for these types of emergencies is primarily the responsibility of local government. My understanding is the company had accurately reported to the fire department, as well as the State and Local Emergency Planning Committees under Tier II reporting (per SARA Title III, Community Right To Know Act). So they should definitely have been on the city’s/county’s radar. But some communities are better than others in terms of what they do with the information. In some cities they would’ve gotten regular inspections, or at least a review of their emergency plans; in others they would’ve been just another entry in a database. I’m not trying to let the Feds off the hook entirely, but “Why hadn’t the local fire department/emergency manager inspected the place?” is a far more relevant question than “Why hadn’t DHS/EPA/OSHA inspected the place?”
    .
    Re zoning: most local zoning codes at least attempt to account for natural hazards like floodplains, etc. But fewer of them have restrictions on hazardous materials facilities, especially in rural areas. This is starting to change in metro areas, but many rural areas are still resistant to the idea of zoning at all. And of course, anything built before the codes were updated would’ve been grandfathered in anyway.

  21. baal:

    This explosion, the major highway bridge collapse in MN a few years back, the huge multi state black in 2003 and other similar problems were entirely preventable occurrences. Could we please start funding government inspectors and having teeth to the compliance ordinances? The other choice is that we continue down the road to looking like Bangladesh.

  22. Who Knows?:

    wscott, Agreed, it is the local agencies that are responsible. We use a number of hazardous chemicals where I work and we are in constant contact with state and county officials who monitor our daily operations and must approve and inspect any of the storage and handling facilities for the chemicals.

    We worked with the DHS when CFATS was first passed. We constructed security fencing, cameras, and installed a new security system along with new security policies and background checks for employees who have to access certain areas.

    Our security systems were reviewed by DHS and our facility was inspected. Word now is DHS is so far behind, they have a 3 or 4 year back log. IMO, Congress passed a law but failed to consider what resources it would require to implement it.

  23. Vasha:

    According to this revealing article, the owner of this fertilizer retailer (not manufacturing plant), Donald Adair, is a lifelong resident of West; the people affected are his friends and family. When he bought the fertilizer business in 2004, it was in financial difficulties, and has not improved since. Although a common reaction to hearing about this accident has been to accuse the owners of being big-businessmen who cynically and deliberately put people at risk, that evidently isn’t the case — Adair certainly would have wanted to avoid blowing up his own town!

    What’s frustrating about the knee-jerk opposition to regulation is that owners and regulators can be on the same side. There’s a whole body of knowledge and experience about safety precautions for storing hazardous chemicals, which is available from manuals and consultants, as well as from regulations which can be convoluted and not necessarily based on best evidence. In cases like this one, businesspeople are really better off heading off problems before they happen, for both financial and intangible reasons; yet a system which ought to help them do so somehow does anything but.

    It’s hard to speculate on why Adair didn’t have a berm around his depot, or other precautions. Did he genuinely not know the risks or not think them important, given that AN explosions are actually very rare when compared to the multi-millions of tons of the stuff that passes through the farm economy all the time, without ever catching on fire? That’s where the perspective of a chemist, for example, comes in handy: they’d say know your material and treat it with respect. Or was the business so financially marginal that he didn’t feel he could spend any money at all on facility improvements? That falls under the saying, “If you can’t afford to do it right, you can’t afford to do it at all.” Either way, we can see the importance of an outside perspective, to provide a counter to this kind of thinking. That’s how, ideally, government and business could work together for everyone’s good. Regulation does not need to be an enemy.

  24. Ben P:

    ,blockquote>but “Why hadn’t the local fire department/emergency manager inspected the place?”

    The local fire department is entirely composed of volunteers (like it is in many small towns for that matter).

  25. wscott:

    @ baal 21 and Vasha 23: Amen!
    .
    @ Who Knows? 22:

    IMO, Congress passed a law but failed to consider what resources it would require to implement it.

    Cuz that hardly ever happens. ;)
    .
    @ BenP 24: Absolutely right. I wasn’t meaning to beat up the local VFD; sorry if it sounded that way. My point is that if we want to keep these incidents from happening again (or at least happen less often), the discussion needs to be focused more on how do we help local governments do their job, and less on Federal Agency solutions. For example, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (passed in response to the 1984 Bhopal India disaster, and signed by that notorious socialist Ronald Reagan) was a great tool to aid local governments in collecting information on what hazardous materials are stored/produced/transported in their jurisdictions. But it hasn’t been significantly updated since then, and as Who Knows points out there has been no commitment of resources to enable local governments to actually do anything with the information once it’s collected.

  26. evilDoug:

    Some numbers:
    The amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the depot would be sufficient for a medium rate of application to about 50 square miles of crop land – not very much. The smallish county where I lived was about a thousand square miles.
    270 tons would take 3 or perhaps 4 rail cars (covered hopper cars) – a small fraction of a train hauling ammonium nitrate.

    There are very likely at least a few hundred depots across the US that have stocks of at least that amount of ammonium nitrate in the spring. Most of it will arrive at the depots by rail. Most of it will leave by truck. Probably most of it will pass through areas far more densely populated than West.

    A little line from Wikipedia:

    It (ammonium nitrate – fuel oil mixture) accounts for an estimated 80% of the 6,000,000,000 pounds (2.7×109 kg) of explosives used annually in North America.

    About 2.4 million tons of ANFO. Probably a significant portion of that is distributed from depots (which will offer, along with bulk, the convenient 55 pound bags), rather than shipped straight from the plant to the end user. Most of it will travel by rail then by truck.
    And DHS wants to know every place where there is more than a ton of ammonium nitrate?! That isn’t even enough to fertilize a quarter section (is that term used in the U.S. – a quarter of a square mile; 40 acres). Security busy-work.

  27. eric:

    @10, @14, @15 – Evidently the plant just recently increased its amount. I’m recalling this from the Reuters story of a couple days ago but I believe they said that in 2009 there was far less at the plant, so the increase happened between then and the point in 2012 where they reported it to Tx. So building etc. around it may have quite reasonably occurred because the plant was storing and using far less stuff when the building happened.

    I believe CFATS oversees chemical site security measures, not industrial safety measures. I’m not sure them being informed would’ve done anything (though they should’ve been informed just because that’s the law). Its a terrible tragedy, but as far as I can tell from news articles, it wasn’t a failure of site security.

  28. democommie:

    “(is that term used in the U.S. – a quarter of a square mile; 40 acres”

    A quarter section is 160 acres. A section/square mile is 640 acres.

  29. Ben P:

    And DHS wants to know every place where there is more than a ton of ammonium nitrate?! That isn’t even enough to fertilize a quarter section (is that term used in the U.S. – a quarter of a square mile; 40 acres). Security busy-work.

    It’s a self reporting scheme where you theoretically get in trouble if you don’t report. It’s not designed for DHS really to keep live track of shipments, but rather to trace shipments when and where the stuff goes missing. The idea being that if a ton of ANFO shows up in a truck bomb somewhere, there ought to be paperwork somewhere showing that somewhere at some time, a ton of it went missing.

  30. evilDoug:

    democommie,

    Doh! Of course you’re right! I don’t “think in acres” much anymore (mostly square metres or kilometres – ’cause I can never remember how big a hectare is). (I note Firefox thinks metre is spelled meter).

    Ben,
    My point is that with such vast amounts of ammonium nitrate and ANFO in “circulation”, a single ton could pretty easily disappear into rounding error. Well-calibrated modern electronic weighing systems can probably keep the error reasonably small, but an overall error of 1 part per million for ANFO alone is 2.4 tons of the stuff.The thing that at least marginally qualified the West place as a “plant” was that they did custom blending. I wonder how accurate the equipment that does that is in terms of metering the individual components. Ten thousand parts per million error would be completely irrelevant to the utility of the fertilizer mix. That would be 2.7 tons for the amount the depot had on hand.
    I don’t know how much ammonium nitrate is used here in western Canada. I do know that anhydrous ammonia is very popular. There are many Hutterite colonies (Firefox has never heard of Hutterites, either!) in Alberta, and some of them operate farms so huge that it wouldn’t surprise me that, if they use ammonium nitrate, they would be buying many tens of tons at a time (a colony where my brother used to teach has a several-million-dollar break-even point on their annual wheat production). If an operation like that wanted to side-track a ton or two, it would be very easy to cover it up.
    Regardless of any of that, DHS isn’t, in my opinion from what I can see, of any use in assuring safety in transport or storage of ammonium nitrate.

  31. dschultz:

    There is basically no ANFO in circulation. It is normally custom blended just before use from explosives grade ammonium nitrate.

  32. dschultz:

    I guess I should add that once blended into the form of ANFO the much stricter storage, sale, and record keeping requirements of the ATF come into force for any quantity.

  33. evilDoug:

    There is basically no ANFO in circulation.

    That may be the case now, at least in the US. It certainly was not true in years gone by in Canada. My dad used to haul it by rail*. There are plenty of images of bagged product in Goggle Images. The Wikipedia article shows bags of it and use of bags of it, though it does say many mines mix it on site. Unfortunately, it has been more than a decade since I knew someone who worked for an explosives distributor and another who was a licensed blower-upper of things, so I no longer have any “inside info.”
    I was rather astounded to learn there are six billion pounds of explosives used annually in North America.

    *along with (though not all on the same train) other people-unfriendly materials like tank cars of sulfuric acid, liquified fuel gases, molten sulfur (which will go by rail from Alberta, where it is extracted from natural gas, to Florida!), etc. Pretty much any hazardous commodity you can name will travel by rail and/or truck.

  34. pilch62:

    I just boggles my mind that this country–given the relative media coverage–is apparently more concerned with and angry about a deluded 19-year-old kid in Boston than with the corporate officers and employees and with the politicians who allowed this horror to happen in Texas.

    Oh, wait–the kid is Muslim; the Texans are presumably Christians. Now I understand. Christians can kill people “by accident” ’til the cows come home . . .

  35. Ichthyic:

    The local fire department is entirely composed of volunteers (like it is in many small towns for that matter).

    hmmm. Didn’t Perry, in his infinite wisdom, CUT the funding for volunteer fire departments a couple years back?

    IIRC, he did it literally just a month before the huge fires hit Texas.

  36. democommie:

    “The local fire department is entirely composed of volunteers (like it is in many small towns for that matter).”

    I do not see why this would make them less likely to be diligent in doing inspections or pressing for remediation of dangerous conditions of storage or use.

  37. democommie:

    BTW, I wonder what Gunslinger Goodhair’s cost cutting moves did to the fire insurance rates in the affected communities.

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