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Explosion in West, TX

Fertilizer plant had record of government fines

Posted Friday, Apr. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The family-owned fertilizer plant that exploded in West had not had a comprehensive inspection in years and was forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines for security and safety violations, according to federal records.

The West Fertilizer plant, which opened in 1962, contained two storage tanks for a combined 24,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia and also stores ammonium nitrate, records say. It was mainly a storage and sales facility, with the chemicals used to make fertilizer for area farmers. It was one of more than 6,000 fertilizer plants in the country, according to the Fertilizer Institute.

Yet for years, it wasn't required to obtain a state air emissions permit because it was so old. When the review came due in 2004, the owners didn't show up.

"They were supposed to come up and get reauthorized, said Zac Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "They failed to do so."

In 2006, the plant came under scrutiny when the state received a complaint about a bad odor. Before then, Covar said, it had no violations and an acceptable track record. There is no record that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had inspected it in many years. The agency hadn't felt the need to investigate worker conditions at the plant, even after the Environmental Protection Agency levied a fine for safety violations, and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazards Materials Safety Administration popped it with another fine for violating security measures.

Lax monitoring of the fertilizer plant in the small town may seem to highlight inadequacies in state regulations that provide oversight of such facilities. But at least one lawmaker from McLennan County, where the blast occurred, said it is too soon to call for new rules.

"This is a terrible disaster, but there's no indication that more stringent this or more stringent that would have had a benefit," said state Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco. "Even in the best of circumstances, you have accidents."

Most people aren't worrying about what-ifs, Anderson said.

That includes Gary Adair, son of the plant's owner, Donald Adair. Gary Adair said he rushed to the plant after he heard the explosion, getting as close as possible. The plant, he said, had obviously been leveled. He said his father had owned it for seven or eight years.

He said he and his 6-year-old grandson then headed to the community center, where some of the injured were being taken. He helped load up those injured in the blast as they arrived in cars and in the back of pickups, mostly residents from a nursing home that had been severely damaged.

He arrived home about 4 Thursday morning. He said he was with his father, who was too distraught to talk.

"It's an unheard-of tragedy for a small town," he said. "This kind of stuff is not supposed to happen to us. All my heart goes out to everybody that's lost loved ones. And thank you to all the people that have helped."

Plant fined

Federal documents say the plant did not have required security and safety plans in place.

For example, the EPA fined the plant more than $2,000 in 2006 for failing to update a risk management plan. In response, the site's operators told the EPA that the plant posed no risk of fire or explosion. The worst case, plant officials said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.

The EPA also found that West Fertilizer did not have a formal maintenance program and that its employee training records were poor.

In addition, the plant was found in violation of key security measures by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The agency discovered that the plant had planned to transport anhydrous ammonia without making or following a security plan. Last summer, regulators fined the plant $10,000, then settled for $5,250.

Ammonium nitrate, a high-nitrogen fertilizer, can be highly combustible, said Brian Zoltowski, assistant professor of chemistry at Southern Methodist University. The chemical is used to make explosives like those used in the Oklahoma City bombing 20 years ago.

"Anytime you have a large-scale industrial plant near a neighborhood, there's always risk of something occurring, a fire, an explosion," Zoltowski said.

Investigators have their work cut out for them as they try to learn the cause of the explosion, Zoltowski said.

"Without knowing the cause, it's really difficult to come to a rational conclusion whether there was any mishandling of materials, or whether this was just a freak accident," Zoltowski said. "You don't want to jump to conclusions."

A team of investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was sent Thursday afternoon to West, said team member Jean Gonsoulin, who was on her way there.

The inspectors are expected to issue a report of findings that will consider all aspects of the chemical explosion, including physical causes, such as equipment failure, inadequacies in regulations, industry standards and safety management systems.

Anderson, the McLennan County lawmaker, said he awaits more details in the days to come.

"We will see what happens once folks are able to investigate and analyze all through that," Anderson said. "There's no indication of any kind of terrorism or anything like that at this point."

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd

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