West Fertilizer explosion and fire highlighted that regulatory coverage is needed

Published:  28 August, 2013

CSB releases video safety message calling for regulatory coverage of reactive chemicals following the massive ammonium nitrate explosion that killed at least 14 people and devastated the town of West, Texas, on April 17, 2013.

Reactive chemicals, like ammonium nitrate, can undergo potentially hazardous chemical reactions, such as violently detonating, if not managed properly, said CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso.

The safety message includes testimony from Chairperson Moure-Eraso during a hearing about the West accident before the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. At that hearing, held on June 27, 2013, Chairperson Moure-Eraso said, “The destruction I personally saw at West – the obliteration of homes, schools and businesses by an ammonium nitrate explosion – was almost beyond imagination.”

As noted in the video, the CSB has determined that ammonium nitrate storage falls under a patchwork of US standards and guidance, which does not prohibit many of the conditions found at the West facility. These include the use of combustible wooden storage bins and buildings and a lack of sprinkler systems in case of fire.

Chairperson Moure-Eraso stated, “The fertilizer industry tells us that U.S. sites commonly store ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings and bins – even near homes, schools or other vulnerable facilities.  This situation must be addressed.”

The video safety message concludes, “The CSB believes it’s past time for OSHA and EPA to regulate reactive hazards – including ammonium nitrate – under their process safety rules.”

In a 2002 study, the CSB called on OSHA and the EPA to expand their standards to include reactive chemicals and hazards, but to date neither agency has acted on the recommendations.  During the Senate hearing, Chairman Moure-Eraso said, “Ammonium nitrate would likely have been included, if the EPA had adopted our 2002 recommendation to cover reactive chemicals under its Risk Management Program. And OSHA has not focused extensively on ammonium nitrate storage and hadn’t inspected West since 1985.”

The safety message goes on to describe other serious reactive chemical accidents investigated by the CSB since its 2002 study.  These include a December 19, 2007, explosion and fire at T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville, Florida; a January 31, 2006, explosion at the Synthron chemical manufacturing facility in Morganton, North Carolina; and an April 12, 2004, toxic release at MFG Chemical in Dalton, Georgia.

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