The Lingering Aftershocks From West Fertilizer

Aerial view of the West Fertilizer explosion site
Aerial view of the West Fertilizer explosion site.

Almost one year ago, a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, TX, led to a massive explosion. The blast and shockwaves from this event killed 15 people, injured 160 more and destroyed or severely damaged numerous homes and buildings situated around the plant, including three schools. The facility itself was virtually obliterated.

And although the aftershocks from this explosion have long since faded from the town of West, according to Allen Summers, director of The Asmark Institute, they are still being felt most keenly by the nation’s many fertilizer dealers and distributors. “This is a black-eye to the fertilizer industry,” says Summers. “In the public’s mind, fertilizer is the bad guy in all of this. This isn’t just West Fertilizer’s problem anymore. It’s our industry’s problem.” He went on to say that fertilizer dealers can probably expect more regulations regarding product handling/storage in the near future, along with “increased scrutiny” on all of their “potentially dangerous” products.

Now, close to the one-year anniversary of the events at West Fertilizer (and just after most ag retailers have filed their SARA Tier II reports on March 1), CropLife® magazine is taking a look at this industry watershed moment. In this article, we will look at what happened on that fateful April day in West, why it may have occurred in the first place and what happens to the fertilizer industry next.

A Long History

To understand how the events at West Fertilizer unfolded in 2013, it’s helpful to consider the facility’s history for a bit. According to company records, West Fertilizer was founded in 1962 as a supplier of crop inputs to growers in central Texas. The plant itself was located 18 miles north of Waco. (One important fact about this plant, points out Summers, is that its construction pre-dated West’s own.)

The plant was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985. At that time, the agency cited West Fertilizer for the improper storage of anhydrous ammonia (NH3) and fined its owner $30. OSHA also found that the facility was in violation of some respiratory protection standards, but issued no fines for these.

For the next 18 years, things were uneventful at West Fertilizer. But in late 2003, the plant’s owner ran into some financial difficulties and decided to go out of business. One of the grower-customers at that time was Donald Adair. Faced with the prospect of driving an extra 30 miles to obtain his crop inputs, Adair ended up purchasing the facility at auction in 2004 for less than $1 million. He then put the business under his holdings in the name of Adair Grain, Inc.

As Summers points out, Adair was a seasoned and well-respected grower in his community. When it came to running a crop inputs outlet, however, his knowledge was somewhat lacking.

“In those early days, Donald Adair and the eight employees at West Fer­tilizer didn’t know all of the things that they had to do necessarily when it came to regulations,” he says. “So in many cases, they were learning as the auditors and inspectors showed up at their door.”

This “lack of knowledge” led to some early problems for the company. In 2006, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) investigated West Fertilizer after a complaint was filed with it concerning “an ammonia smell coming from the facility.” The agency cited the company for not having obtained a permit for two on-site NH3 storage tanks. A permit was subsequently issued once the facility was in accord with the regulations and recommendations made by TCEQ.

West Fertilizer also ran into trouble with a few other agencies over the years. In 2006, the EPA fined the company $2,300 for problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time. In June 2012, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Admini­stration fined West Fertilizer $5,250 for violations regarding its storage of NH3.

Still, by 2012, the company was doing reasonably well financially. In that year, West Fertilizer reported annual sales of $4 million. According to a filing with the EPA that year, the plant stored 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate (AN) and 110,000 pounds of NH3 on-site.

A Fire Breaks Out

During the early evening hours of April 17, 2013 (after the plant had closed for the day), a fire was reported at the West Fertilizer facility. Firefighters were called to the scene and were attempting to control it. Then, at 7:50 p.m., a massive explosion took place (which the U.S. Geological Survey recorded as a 2.1-magnitude tremor). Besides damaging nearby buildings and homes, the West Fertilizer explosion was heard by residents as far north as Arlington and windows were blown out in Abbott, approximately seven miles north-northwest of West.

At the plant itself, the power of the blast was quite obvious, says Summers. There was at the time of the accident a railcar containing 100 tons of AN on the tracks next to the facility waiting to be unloaded. “This railcar was blown off the track and moved several hundred feet away,” he says. “The blast also left a nine-foot deep crater 93 feet across at the location of the AN bin.”

Immediately after the explosion occurred, Waco Police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced that the West Fertilizer site would be treated as a “crime scene.” During the initial investigation, authorities ruled out weather, natural causes, NH3 and the nearby railcar containing AN as possible causes of the explosion.

Sensitized AN

Instead, investigators determined that there were two explosions, seconds apart, says Summers. “The first explosion caused a shockwave that ignited the stored AN in the building, which had apparently been sensitized,” he says. “The second explosion was the AN going off.”

According to Summers, AN cannot ignite unless it is first primed using some kind of accelerant such as kerosene. “You can’t just light a match sitting on a pile of AN and make it explode,” he says. “It has to be sensitized first.”

How can AN become sensitized while sitting in a storage bin? There are a couple of ways, says Summers. The first is it was placed in an improperly cleaned bin that previously contained products such as sulfur, iron or manganese. Another would be for AN to be stored in a high humidity environment in a bin with concrete floors and sides. “This could allow the AN to form a crust on top which would prevent it from breathing,” he says. “Then it could sensitize.”

The final way stored AN could become sensitized would be exposure to some kind of shockwave from a nearby explosion or fire event. Although it isn’t known with any certainty, this is most likely what triggered the West Fertilizer disaster.

In the days leading up to the explosion, West Fertilizer had stored some green hay inside its seed/fertilizer storage building. As Summers notes, green hay stored in such a manner can sometimes begin to smolder or catch fire. “According to their records, the fire department in West responded to a fire in this building two days before the disaster,” he says. “They addressed this green hay fire by putting water on it.”

But as Summers says, a green hay fire cannot necessarily be controlled simply by dousing it with water. “For those people who work with green hay storage know, after putting out a fire in this stuff, you need to take it out of the place it is being kept in and spread it out to completely dry,” he says. “Based upon what we know about West Fertilizer, this didn’t happen. The green hay was left in the building.”

Another possible culprit for a fire/explosion at the West Fertilizer facility, says Summers, could have been a golf cart that was kept on-site and used by the plant manager to get around the facility. “Investigators noted that this model of golf cart had been recalled in the past because of fire issues with its charging system and battery,” he says. “In West, the axle from this golf cart was discovered about a half-mile away from the plant grounds.”

Whatever the cause, many authorities pointed the blame squarely at West Fertilizer and Adair Grain for the accident. According to the EPA, the company’s 2011 emergency planning report stated its NH3 storage tanks “did not represent a significant fire or explosion hazard” (and both did in fact remain intact following the disaster). Furthermore, one week following the explosion, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Senate investigators that West Fertilizer had not disclosed its AN supply to her department as required by federal law (where more than 1 ton of AN is present).

However, as Summers points out, there can be somewhat of a disconnect between the various local, state and federal agencies when it comes to keeping tabs on these kinds of reports. “Some of these rules the industry is working with go back 30 years without any updates,” he says. “In some cases, the government hasn’t trained the local departments what to do with the forms they are collecting each year. Many of them probably end up in a file cabinet drawer when they are turned in and might never get looked at again.”

Furthermore, he adds, some of the oversights that occurred at West Fertilizer are hardly unique to that particular crop inputs facility. “Storing green hay in a fertilizer building is probably not a shining example of how the fertilizer industry does its business, but other facilities have done equally stupid things in their day,” he says. “What happened at West Fertilizer is not any different than any other plant. This could have been any retailer around the country.”

Pages: 1 2

Topics:

Leave a Reply

One comment on “The Lingering Aftershocks From West Fertilizer

  1. Thank you for mentioning the green hay. This is the first I have read about it. Anyone who is familiar with growing, harvesting, and storing hay is familiar with the fire danger posed by wet hay. I wonder why the federal investigators never mentioned it. Are they really that stupid?

    It was nice to read about a Homeland Security type admitting that the limit for ammonium nitrate fertilizer is one ton, not the 400 pounds (which has been widely attributed to a person familiar with Homeland Security operations – or just simply asserted without attribution). The next step (which neither your reporter nor nearly every other reporter involved with this story accomplished) is to check on the web for the actual regulation. The one-ton limit only applies if the ammonium nitrate fertilizer is packaged and ready to ship. If it isn’t, there is NO limit. Homeland Security was not advised of the stored ammonium nitrate because Homeland Security did not want to know about it, and wrote regulations to prevent this reporting. In short, West Fertilizer did all the required government reporting. The government simply failed to do its part.

    One item I have not found addressed in any coverage (official or press) of the explosion is the source of the carbon crystals in the fireball: hot black carbon crystals in the exploding fireball made it glow orange and then red, as it cooled. Without the carbon crystals, the fireball would have been a pale blue. What was the source of the carbon in the explosion: what carbonaceous fuel had been mixed with the ammonium nitrate before it exploded? Had someone poured kerosene on the fertilizer in the hope of producing an explosion? Had West Fertilizer blended in some other carbon-containing fuel? Flour perhaps?

    If the official ATF non-criminal-activity explanation (the pure ammonium nitrate melted and then detonated because it was in the liquid state because of a fire started by the electrical system or the golf cart) were correct, the fireball would have been pale blue, not glowing orange and red, and the smoke plume would have been brown, not sooty grey.

    What was the source of the carbon?

    Whom is the ATF trying not to accuse?

Management Stories

ManagementTechnology and agriculture: a Futurist’s Perspective
July 30, 2015
Futurist David Zach, speaking at this week’s InfoAg Conference in St. Louis, shared thoughts on the benefits and limitations of Read More
StewardshipOhio Water Quality Project To Determine How Much Phosphorus Is Leaving Fields
July 27, 2015
Researchers with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University are looking for farmers in Read More
ManagementFCI Trade Summit Update & Precision Tank Turns 50
July 23, 2015
Editors Dave Frabotta and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the upcoming FCI Trade Summit in Las Vegas, NV, and how Precision Tank Read More
ManagementUpdates On UAV Rules & Crop Conditions
July 16, 2015
CropLife’s Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj provide updates on the ongoing UAV regulations debate and how the nation’s crops are Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100Allied Ag Distributors Adds Four New Owners
July 30, 2015
Aligned Ag Distributors LLC has announced the addition of four new customer/owners to Franklin Holding Co. LLC. They are: The Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Purchases California-Based Specialty Crops Retailer
July 20, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings has successfully acquired California-based NH3 Service Co.  Operating as part of Pinnacle’s Performance Agriculture brand, the new locations Read More
Asmus Farm Supply liquid fertilizer facility features 20,000 square feet
CropLife 100Slideshow: Asmus Farm Supply Shows Off Its New Liquid Fertilizer Facility
July 15, 2015
Asmus Farm Supply, Rake, IA, recently added a new liquid fertilizer facility to its company operations. The new liquid fertilizer Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Feed Division Facilities Receive Safe Feed/Safe Food Certification
July 13, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Co.’s Feed Division, a marketer and distributor of value-added feed ingredients for the aquaculture, livestock and pet food industries Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Expands To Brazil With Acquisition
July 8, 2015
BRANDT has acquired a majority interest in Target Brasil Fertilizantes Ltda. through its Brazilian subsidiary. Target Brasil manufactures, distributes and Read More
Milan Kucerak, president/CEO, West Central
CropLife 100West Central Cooperative And Its New President Are A Match Made In Deviation
June 29, 2015
To appreciate just how unique West Central Cooperative is in the world of ag retail, an observer need only consider Read More
Latest News
CropLife 100Allied Ag Distributors Adds Four New Owners
July 30, 2015
Aligned Ag Distributors LLC has announced the addition of four new customer/owners to Franklin Holding Co. LLC. They are: The Read More
FungicidesReport: Sudden Death Syndrome Symptoms Appearing In Soy…
July 30, 2015
Last week, symptoms of sudden death syndrome (SDS) began to appear in April 15-planted soybeans at the University of Illinois’s Read More
Seed/BiotechAdvanta Seeds Adds New Phoenix Corn Hybrids
July 30, 2015
Corn growers in the High Plains and Western states have new options available for the 2016 growing season from Advanta Read More
ManagementTechnology and agriculture: a Futurist’s Perspective
July 30, 2015
Futurist David Zach, speaking at this week’s InfoAg Conference in St. Louis, shared thoughts on the benefits and limitations of Read More
Biofuels Plant in Lousiana
Industry NewsIdle Biofuels Plant In Louisiana To Reopen As Ammonia F…
July 30, 2015
A Lithuania-based company plans to spend $265 million to reopen an idle biofuels refinery in Grant Parish as an ammonia Read More
FFA at Monsanto Booth at the 2015 National Farm Machinery Show
Industry NewsFive Students Receive The 2015 Monty’s Plant Food Compa…
July 29, 2015
This fall, five college-bound students will have financial support through the Monty’s Plant Food Company FFA Scholarship. All five scholarship Read More
GYPSOIL Blendable Pellets
Crop InputsBeneficial Reuse Management Launches Pelletized Gypsum …
July 29, 2015
Beneficial Reuse Management (BRM) announced this week at Ag Media Summit that its GYPSOIL Pelletized Products Division will open a Read More
StewardshipOhio Water Quality Project To Determine How Much Phosph…
July 27, 2015
Researchers with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University are looking for farmers in Read More
FertilizerKoch Agronomic Services Launches N-TEGRATION Technology
July 27, 2015
Koch Agronomic Services, LLC (KAS) has launched  N-TEGRATION Technology, a process technology platform designed to enable production of enhanced efficiency fertilizers at Read More
HerbicidesExpert: IARC Herbicide Classifications Leading To Confu…
July 24, 2015
Few people in the crop protection industry had heard of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) before this Read More
ManagementFCI Trade Summit Update & Precision Tank Turns 50
July 23, 2015
Editors Dave Frabotta and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the upcoming FCI Trade Summit in Las Vegas, NV, and how Precision Tank Read More
Palmer pigweed seedhead in cotton
HerbicidesUSDA Deregulates Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist Cotton Trait
July 23, 2015
The USDA today issued its decision deregulating Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist cotton trait in the U.S. The USDA has now completed its Read More
Industry NewsVerdesian Life Sciences Showcases Versatile Product Por…
July 23, 2015
Technology has revolutionized agriculture by bringing farmers, retailers and distributors to the forefront of the digital age. To meet the Read More
FertilizerWSJ: Cf Industries Exploring Merger With Dutch Chemical…
July 23, 2015
U.S. fertilizer maker CF Industries is in advanced merger talks with Amsterdam-listed chemical company OCI NV, the Wall Street Journal Read More
HerbicidesNufarm Releases New Panther SC Herbicide
July 23, 2015
Nufarm has announced the availability of new Panther SC herbicide. Panther SC is the first liquid formulation of flumioxazin available Read More
EquipmentFarmLink Launches Farm Equipment Sharing Program
July 23, 2015
FarmLink has introduced a new online farm equipment sharing community – MachineryLink Sharing – leveraging this new economy business model Read More
HerbicidesCould The South’s Most Troublesome Weed Represent A Thr…
July 22, 2015
Palmer amaranth is undoubtedly the most troublesome weed in the southern United States, taking a devastating toll on both cotton Read More
Industry NewsH.J. Baker Hires New Director Of International Sales
July 22, 2015
Global Agriculture firm H.J. Baker announced today that Steve Langley has joined the company’s Crop Performance Division and Animal Health Read More