Last week marked one year since a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas killed 15 and injured nearly 180 people, causing an estimated $100 million in damages to local homes, schools and businesses. The accident was an example of a preventable, industrial incident, according to comments filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by Neil Carman, Clean Air Program Director for the Lone Star of the Sierra Club.
In his remarks to the EPA, Carman emphasized that simple steps would have prevented the fire and subsequent explosion of ammonium nitrate at the plant, including “simply adding a limestone additive to the mixture that would have reduced the likelihood of a fire and explosion.” Carman explained, “Limestone is relatively inexpensive and it does not weaken the fertilizer. The West fertilizer plant already had blending equipment that could have been used for adding and mixing the limestone with the ammonium nitrate.“
In the absence of the EPA acting to address the regulatory issues surrounding Texas fertilizer plants, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) already has the authority to strengthen regulations, yet has not done so.
According to Carman, the TCEQ could take steps today to make fertilizer plants safer — such as requiring limestone to be mixed into the fertilizer, and if a company chooses not to make that decision, it could be required to maintain a quarter-mile perimeter around the facility to protect the public.
Coinciding with the anniversary of the West explosion, the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety held a hearing on the West explosion and considered regulatory options for preventing similar incidents. While many comments at the hearing suggested requiring fertilizers with volatile or explosive properties to be held in concrete or metal buildings to prevent fires, Carman said it is unclear that this would be sufficiently safe.
“Requiring that new warehouses and manufacturing facilities that house dangerous chemicals or fertilizers be constructed of non-flammable materials would be an improvement over current practice, but dilution, buffer zones, better reporting and more frequent inspections must also be considered,” Carman noted.