An old saying claims that “one bad apple will spoil the whole bunch.” And given the events of last week in West, TX, I fear this phrase may begin to haunt the entire fertilizer manufacturing industry as well.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in Texas. This blast not only virtually destroyed the facility, but killed 14 people and injured hundreds more. The plant’s owner, Adair Grain Inc. issued this statement Monday.
However, there is evidence of safety neglect on the part of the company in the past concerning this facility. According to published reports, the EPA fined the plant $2,300 in 2006 for not having an emergency plan on file for handling anhydrous ammonia produced there. Just last year, the company was fined $5,000 for transporting anhydrous ammonia in unauthorized cargo tanks and failing to develop/follow a security plan.
Furthermore, in its most recent emergency plan filing with EPA in 2011, West Fertilizer said its operation “did not pose a risk of either explosion or fire.” And if anhydrous ammonia was all the company was producing, this would have been true. According to most fertilizer experts, anhydrous ammonia needs to be heated to almost 1,600 degrees to explode.
But another filing with EPA by West Fertilizer in 2012 indicated the plant had not only 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site, but 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate. Unfortunately, this material can be explosive if ignited with a fuel booster (which conceivably could have happened in an out-of-control fire situation).
Not surprisingly, the calls for tighter regulations on fertilizer plants are now making the rounds in the popular press. “This tragic explosion points to the need for stricter regulations of plants that store and use large quantities of hazardous chemicals,” said Tom O’Connor of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health in an interview with NBC. “We need a system in which facilities that are inherently dangerous are required to develop detailed disaster prevention plans before they’re allowed to operate.”
On the face of it, I can’t disagree with having a detailed disaster plan in place. West Fertilizer certainly needed an updated one once the facility started storing different materials vs. what was cited in its original plan.
But the company apparently didn’t do this. So now, everyone in the fertilizer business might end up suffering because of this “one bad apple.”