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.
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.”