The West Fertilizer Plant Didn't Even Have a Sprinkler System to Help Put Out the Blaze

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 27 2013 1:35 PM

The West Fertilizer Plant Didn't Even Have a Sprinkler System to Help Put Out the Blaze

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A railroad boxcar filled with ammonium nitrate lays on its side near to the remains of the fertilizer plant that exploded yesterday afternoon on April 18, 2013 in West, Texas

Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Some disturbing details emerged today from one of several ongoing investigations into the April explosion of a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas. The massive blast—which killed 15 people and leveled most of the small town—is believed to have been caused by the combustion of massive amounts of ammonium nitrate, a chemical present in fertilizer that was used in the 1996 Oklahoma City bombings.

Given the dangers involved in housing such large quantities of that chemical, one might hope that there would have been strict safety rules in place at the West Fertilizer Co. plant. But that's not the case. As the U.S. Chemical Safety Board informed lawmakers today during a Senate hearing, the plant lacked a number of common-sense safeguards—basic preventative measures that the company was not legally required to take. Exactly how common-sense are we talking? We'll let the Associated Press explain:

The West Fertilizer Co. had no sprinkler systems, stored the chemical in wooden bins and did not report to local emergency responders the potential hazards of storing tons of ammonium nitrate because the law does not require them to do so, the report states. Firefighters are given only vague guidelines on how to battle a blaze involving ammonium nitrate — a chemical often used as a cheap alternative to dynamite in mining operations that has been used in terrorist bomb attacks.
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"To summarize, the safety of ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. regulatory standards and guidance — a patchwork that has many large holes," according to the report presented to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee today. The AP, which got an early look at the CSB's full report, has more here.