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Deadly plant blast puts spotlight on safety

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A deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant highlights the importance of identifying, addressing and communicating such facilities' unique hazards, particularly since many are in or near population centers.

The April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, killed 12 emergency responders and three civilians and injured more than 260 others, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The explosion, which destroyed the facility and caused extensive damage to 150 offsite buildings, triggered an estimated $230 million in insurance-related losses, the chemical safety board said in a January report. However, the company, which filed for bank-ruptcy after the disaster, was insured for just $1 million, according to the report.

The insurance coverage “was pretty minimal, unfortunately for many of the people involved,” said Mark Hanna, Austin-based program manager and staff liaison at the Insurance Council of Texas. “The reason for that is if you look at their track record, (it was) pretty quiet. It was kind of like a forgotten business that was embedded in their community.”

West Fertilizer had commercial general liability and on-site property and business loss policies with Enid, Oklahoma-based Triangle Insurance Co. Inc. from 2007 to 2009, but the insurer rejected renewing the coverage after that period because of the company's lack of compliance with its loss control recommendations, according to the federal agency's report.

“The insurance carrier is a business, and they really cannot force the plant manager or the risk manager to implement the recommendations,” said Walt Beattie, founder and president of Beattie Fire Protection & Risk Consulting L.L.C. in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. “The insurance underwriter made a business decision to not continue writing business there.”

After the nonrenewal, West Fertilizer obtained a general liability policy with a $1 million limit from U.S. Fire Insurance Co., a unit of Morristown, New Jersey-based Crum & Forster.

Neither insurer responded to requests for comment.

A key risk of storage facilities for ammonium nitrate, a key fertilizer component, is that they often are in populated areas, with 83% of the 40 facilities in Texas less than 0.3 miles from a residence or apartment building, according to the chemical safety agency.

A May 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report said the total number and locations of ammonium nitrate storage facilities are unknown, but it identified at least 1,300 facilities in 47 states that had enough of the chemical that they were obligated to report to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for security purposes.

Many older facilities are not built to current standards, Mr. Beattie said.

“West had a lot of combustible construction, which would probably not be permitted today in many municipalities,” he said. “And in West, there was no regulation that required a safe distance between the community and the fertilizer store.”

The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have not made a final determination about the cause of the fire, but a key lesson learned is “we've got to keep fire away from areas that store ammonia nitrate,” said State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, who is based in Austin. “We've got to do what we can to prevent a fire from occurring, because that was the catalyst that led ultimately to the explosion.”

The Texas Legislature passed a law last year mandating that no combustible materials be stored in the same structure as ammonium nitrate and gave the office authority to conduct inspections to ensure agribusinesses comply, Mr. Connealy said.

Companies that surpass a certain threshold of hazardous chemicals are required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to have a process safety management program, which includes an assessment of the hazards and controls, Mr. Beattie said. The hazard analysis and community outreach that is part of this process did not occur at West, he said.

“They were probably sort of a sleeper hazard,” Mr. Beattie said. “People saw it every day, drove by it and never really gave much thought about it.”

The West explosion was frequently cited and discussed last week at a Washington meeting of the National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health's subcommittee for emergency response and preparedness, which is developing a proposed emergency responder preparedness program standard for OSHA consideration.

This proposed standard aims to address a critical issue outlined in the chemical safety agency's report, which concluded that the West Volunteer Fire Department did not conduct preincident planning or response training at the facility, was likely unaware of the detonation potential of the ammonium nitrate materials and did not have appropriate training in hazardous materials response.

The draft proposal would require emergency service organizations to develop a written, comprehensive community vulnerability and risk assessment of hazards, including specific requirements for hazardous materials mitigation and training.

“They got into a situation that they were not prepared for,” said Rick Ingram, health and safety adviser at BP P.L.C. in Goliad, Texas, and co-chair of the subcommittee. “Unfortunately, we lost a lot of heroes. That brings us back down to earth a little bit.”

“It all goes back to planning, understanding what you're going to be doing and what risk you're going to be encountering,” he said.