Hazards at West Fertilizer plant were largely unknown to public

Posted Sunday, Apr. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH - Five miles north of downtown, a fertilizer plant sits on 29 acres in a mostly uninhabited area near railroad tracks.

And just 492 feet away from the steel and gravel is Cesar Chavez Elementary School.

A little more than a decade ago, the Fort Worth school district decided the area would be a good place for classrooms and purchased the property to build the pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade campus.

The American Plant Food Corp. plant that sits nearby is one of roughly 1,200 "Tier 2" sites in Tarrant County that must report to local, state and federal agencies because they store large quantities of potentially hazardous chemicals. In addition to industrial plants, Tier 2 facilities include gas stations.

Wednesday's massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in Central Texas is a reminder that similar accidents can happen anywhere, said Juan Ortiz, chairman of the Tarrant County Local Emergency Planning committee. And often, "Tier 2" facilities sit near schools, hospitals and homes, he said.

"People forget that chemical emergencies happen and will continue to happen,'' Ortiz said. "It's not going to be caused by Mother Nature. It's going to happen because accidents happen in large facilities."

By law, such facilities must be transparent with the public, Ortiz said.

"The community has a right to know what hazardous chemicals are stored in their community and where,'' he said.

And that's where the citizens of West were at a disadvantage; the hazards were largely unknown, he and others said.

As investigators work to determine the cause of the explosion, attention is focusing on the tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the facility. In addition to anhydrous ammonia stored in tanks, West Fertilizer had stored as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to state reports.

Ammonium nitrate is used in both fertilizer and explosives, and was used in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal courthouse. State law prohibits the transport of aluminum nitrate in urban counties, including Tarrant, Dallas and Harris, experts said.

Had the West community been more knowledgeable about the plant's storage of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, wiser decisions could have been made about the location of homes and schools, said Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health in Raleigh, N.C.

What's more, the information might have prevented the deaths of early responders.

Based on how the West volunteer firefighters responded to the plant fire, they "had no idea of the possibility that this thing could blow up,'' said O'Connor, whose nonprofit organization includes labor unions and health and technical professionals.

A residential area that included a 15-unit apartment complex and a nursing home was built just across the railroad tracks from the plant, which dates to 1962. West Intermediate School sits nearly adjacent to the property.

The Reuters news agency reported Saturday that West Fertilizer had been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate than would typically trigger oversight by regulators at the Department of Homeland Security. But a source told the news service that the plant had not disclosed the amount.

“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told Reuters in a statement. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act, yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”

Plant owner Donald Adair, 83, released a statement Friday promising to work with authorities to determine the cause of Wednesday’s fatal blast.

Unlike West Fertilizer, the American Plant Food facility in Fort Worth does not store ammonium nitrate or anhydrous ammonia, but has large quantities of ammonium sulfate, said an official at its Houston headquarters who declined to be identified. "It's a fire-retardant,'' the official said.

Fort Worth school board president Judy Needham said she does not remember discussing details of the plant when the district purchased the property for the nearby elementary school as part of its 2000 bond package. Cesar Chavez Elementary opened in 2003.

Theo Udeigwe, assistant professor of chemistry at the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University, said ammonium sulfate, used in a type of fertilizer, "contains ammonia, so there's chances of it being combustible. But not like ammonium nitrate. That one is explosive.''

Tarrant County last witnessed a big chemical explosion in 2005 at the Valley Solvents and Chemicals plant off Interstate 35 in Fort Worth. Four people were injured, and a pillar of black smoke could be seen 30 miles away.

The plant contained more than a dozen large metal and plastic tanks containing 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of methanol, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, ethanol and other chemicals.

"That's probably the largest incident that we've had in quite some time,'' Ortiz said.

O'Connor said federal regulators gave short shrift to a risk-management plan filed by West Fertilizer with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Such risk-management plans are required under a federal "Community Right to Know" act, established after the 1984 Union Carbide pesticide explosion in Bhopal, India, that killed 2,000 people.

The tactical plans are used by local first-responder agencies to stage rescue efforts and ensure community safety if disaster strikes.

"These are tactical plans for how to respond to an incident,'' Ortiz said.

West's plan was "vague and very pro forma,'' O'Connor said. After being fined $2,000 in 2006 for failing to update its plan, the plant told the EPA that the plant posed no risk of fire or explosion, and that the worst risk would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.

The EPA has not responded to claims of poor oversight at the plant.

This report contains material from Star-Telegram archives.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

Twitter: @yberard

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