With the horrific explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, it is an apt time to revisit the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) report on the 2013 ammonium nitrate (AN) detonation that devastated West, Texas, killing 15 people, and injuring 260 others. That report, published in 2016, identified the regulatory gaps and system weaknesses that had allowed a major hazard to go unnoticed for years in the community. Although some progress has been made on AN safety in the U.S. since the accident, as Katherine Lemos, chair of the CSB, noted in a recent statement, many of the weaknesses that were present in 2013 remain in 2020.
In its report, the CSB pointed to a number of factors that enabled the 2013 incident, both in its occurrence and its severity. From the unsafe storage conditions of the AN to the low hazard awareness of the responding firefighters, 12 of whom lost their lives. Chief among the regulatory gaps and weaknesses identified by the CSB were those left by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Those regulations, EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) and OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) program, did not cover AN in 2013 and they still don’t. The RMP and PSM rules were developed by the agencies to prevent major chemical accidents but they do not include the use of AN within their scope. Facilities using AN, like the West Fertilizer Company (WFC), are therefore not required to perform hazard analyses, employee safety training, emergency planning, and other actions to minimize the risk and consequences of an AN accident. In this context, it bears noting that WFC was familiar with EPA’s RMP regulation as it pertained to anhydrous ammonia, which the company stored on site, and endeavored to comply. The inclusion of AN in the standard would have brought scrutiny to the facility’s sizable AN stockpile and the fire safety hazards that surrounded it.
Without PSM, OSHA still has a rule that applies to AN—the Explosives and Blasting Agents regulation. However, since WFC was selling AN as a fertilizer, and not for use as an explosive, they were not aware it applied. In 2016, CSB urged OSHA to not only change the name of the regulation to indicate it applies to any use of AN over a threshold quantity, but also to change the regulation to reference NFPA 400 (2016). This most recent edition of NFPA 400, now 2019, prohibits AN storage in wooden bins, the practice at WFC, and requires stricter fire protection measures. As it is now, [the CSB believes] the OSHA regulation is insufficient to provide for the safe use of the material.
At the state level, Texas still lacks a statewide fire code and the state law still makes it difficult for authorities in more rural areas to adopt one. Given that ammonium nitrate is stored and used in rural counties, officials should have more tools at their disposal to ensure those facilities are not a danger to the community.
Another tool suggested by the CSB is insurance. Texas requires businesses in a number of different sectors to hold commercial liability insurance policies, from amusement ride operators to electricians and tow truck drivers. However, there’s no such requirements for proprietors selling large quantities of fertilizer. In WFC’s case, their original insurance provider dropped their coverage after making safety recommendations that went unfollowed. While WFC did acquire insurance from another provider, the actual damages from the accident exceeded the coverage by several orders of magnitude. If businesses storing and selling AN were required to hold insurance policies that met certain criteria, communities would have another set of eyes, and another layer of protection, for those facilities.
The CSB report made a number of other recommendations as well, from ensuring hazardous materials training for firefighters and encouraging pre-incident planning to implementing industry programs to inform every actor in the supply chain of the hazards associated with AN. But so far, of the 19 recommendations, only seven are closed.
In Beirut, it has been reported that public safety officials tried to no avail to spur the removal of a huge stockpile of AN from the port. In the U.S., we may take for granted that officials would act, and with urgency, if an [ultrahazardous] situation was discovered in our community. However, as the open recommendations show, we are still allowing a hazard to slip through the cracks.
For additional information on the subject, watch a recent video with Guy Colonna, an engineering director at NFPA, who discusses ammonium nitrate safety after the Beirut explosion. Guy will also host a webinar for stakeholders in Latin America on Monday, August 24 at 8:00 pm (19:00 Mexico City local time) with Jaime Gutiérrez, new NFPA international development director for Latin America, about the role of ammonium nitrate in the Beirut explosion, and appropriate safety management of the chemical compound.
Photo: Beirut, before the explosion.