Little has been done from a regulatory standpoint to ensure that the kind of catastrophic disaster that rocked the town of West, Texas, five years ago doesn’t happen again.
That’s the assessment of at least one expert on the fifth anniversary of a fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer plant that killed 15 people and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings. Damage was estimated at $250 million.
“The Environmental Protection Agency did amend its process of safety or risk management guidelines that would prevent explosions – [it] required a few more training sessions, and that sort of thing,” Thomas O. McGarity, a professor of administrative and environmental law at the University of Texas, told Texas Public Radio. “Really I think they did improve things somewhat, though they did not address the precise substance, which was ammonium nitrate, that blew up at the plant.”
Storage and protection of ammonium nitrate were key elements of a West, Texas, cover story in the March/April 2014 issue of NFPA Journal. The article detailed how a fire at the plant eventually heated stored (and unsprinklered) ammonium nitrate until it detonated, producing a colossal explosion that was heard 80 miles away and resulting in widespread damage and devastation in a town of fewer than 3,000 people. The article included reportage on the early efforts of Chris Connealy, the Texas state fire marshal, to raise awareness of hazards related to stored ammonium nitrate and to advocate for a state fire code in accordance with NFPA 1, Fire Code.
In response to the West Fertilizer explosion, the 2016 edition of NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, included expanded requirements for the safe storage of ammonium nitrate. The changes were covered in a May/June 2015 feature article in NFPA Journal.
McGarity pointed out that President Obama issued an executive order following the West incident for agencies to review the conditions that could lead to similar explosions. The EPA responded with regulations that were set to take effect in 2017, but the agency put them on hold for reevaluation. “The Trump administration wants to pull back anything that the Obama administration did and see whether they can do it differently,” McGarity said. “It’s very difficult these days to write new regulations. There are so many impediments to getting a regulation through the process.”
Meanwhile, the nation contains tons of stored ammonium nitrate primed for regulation. In our 2014 story, the EPA estimated that 13,000 facilities similar to West Fertilizer posed threats to communities throughout the U.S.