US Chemical Safety Board root-cause investigation of West explosion continues.

Board to Examine Ammonium Nitrate Storage, siting, fire protection, and preparedness issues

Published:  28 May, 2013

As other agencies wrapped up their on-site investigations into the ammonium nitrate explosion at West Fertilizer in West, Texas, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) announced its work to examine all aspects of the tragedy will continue in the town of West, at the Western Regional Office in Denver, and at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

The CSB deployed a team of approximately 18 investigators and other technical experts within 24 hours of the incident on April 17, and has maintained an almost continuous presence in West since then. The sudden blast led to at least 14 fatalities, approximately 200 injuries, and widespread damage and destruction in the small town of West, Texas, located between Dallas and Waco.  

CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said: ‘On behalf of our investigation team and the board, I would like to thank the mayor, fire and police officials, community members and West Fertilizer employees for their outstanding cooperation with the CSB during an extraordinarily difficult period. Our hearts go out to the residents, employees, and emergency responders and we want everyone to know we are fully committed to providing a thorough public account of all the factors that led to this catastrophe. After a disaster of this scale, it is essential to pursue improved safety as we look toward the future.’

CSB Western Regional Office Director Don Holmstrom said: ‘The CSB will be examining many issues surrounding the explosion such as the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate, the siting of vulnerable public facilities and residential units near the facility, and emergency responder safety. In addition, the investigation will examine the adequacy of national standards, industry practices, and regulations for the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate.’ 

CSB investigation areas of inquiry will include ammonium nitrate safe handling and storage standards here and in other countries such as the UK and Australia; land use planning and zoning practices for high-hazard facilities in relation to schools, public facilities, and residential areas; ammonium nitrate detonation mechanisms; the effectiveness of regulatory coverage including OSHA, EPA, and the State of Texas; whether there are inherently safer products or safer ways to store and mitigatethe damage should a fire or explosion occur. The investigation will examine the emergency response during the fire at West, and practices, including preparedness, fire codes, and guidelines for good practices found in other jurisdictions.

Dr. Moure-Eraso stressed the CSB does not issue fines or penalties of any kind, or seek civil or criminal sanctions. ‘We do not look for individual fault or blame with regard to actions taken before an accident or in response to them. Rather, we produce what are called root cause investigations.’

The CSB is in the process of conducting witness interviews and gathering documents and other evidence. It has documented blast damage and patterns in the community, and will engage in testing chemical samples and conducting a thorough analysis of the nature and magnitude of the blast, and its actual and potential consequences.

Chairperson Moure-Eraso said: ‘This accident produced far more offsite community damage and destruction than any we have investigated since the agency opened its doors in 1998. We will release information and findings when possible as we continue our work, and in the end will issue a comprehensive root cause report with recommendations.  We also encourage members of the public and stakeholders to share information directly with the CSB as the investigation progresses.’ 

The CSB established a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/WestExplosion, to exchange information with the public concerning the investigation.

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