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Dangerous Chemical in Texas Explosion Poorly Regulated

Ammonium Nitrate

Ammonium nitrate is thought to have caused the explosion in West, Texas.

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Almost two months after the West, TX, fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 and injured hundreds more, the many investigations searching for the cause have turned up little more than the usual inter-agency bickering and an astonishing number of overlooked safety precautions.

A Killer Compound

Ammonium nitrate is an extremely dangerous chemical compound capable of violently exploding if heated or ignited, and is often used by coal mining contractors to blow up mountain tops. Yet it is not included in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of Extremely Hazardous Substances, despite the fact that it has been the cause of deadly disasters in the U.S. since the early 1920s, and thousands of people have died around the world due to ammonium nitrate. Countries such as China, the United Kingdom, and Germany have already banned this chemical compound. Ammonium Nitrate is, however, considered a Hazardous Material by the Department of Transportation, and it falls under the “Explosives and blasting agents” regulations for Hazardous Materials by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

And Department of Defense (DoD) sources have confirmed to the Project On Government Oversight that the majority of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan and Iraq include ammonium nitrate. But this is certainly not the first time that terrorists have used the compound to disastrous effect.

In 1995 Timothy McVeigh filled a rental truck with 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, an act now known as the Oklahoma City bombing. That terrorist attack, which injured over 680 people and killed 168—including 19 children, caused approximately $652 million in damage in the 16-block radius around the building and destroyed a third of the Murrah Federal building. A DoD official confirmed to POGO that if McVeigh had taken some additional steps to enhance the explosion, it would have destroyed the entire building within seconds.

Because ammonium nitrate is such a sensitive compound, it’s prone to accidental explosions as well. In 2004, a train carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in Ryongchon, North Korea. According to the Red Cross, the only outside agency allowed into the area, there were 154 deaths, including 76 children from a nearby primary school, and 1,300 injured. It was determined that the cause of the accident was “carelessness.”

These and other incidents, in addition to the most recent explosion in West, TX, demonstrate that ammonium nitrate fertilizer is a dangerous substance, whether used maliciously or simply stored and managed incorrectly. While there is little that can be done to prevent those with malevolent intent from using the compound, it is possible for the EPA and other government agencies to control its legal production, storage, and usage.

A Failure of Enforcement

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 requires each state to establish a State Emergency Response Commission “responsible for coordinating certain emergency response activities and for appointing local emergency planning committees (LEPCs).” Under this law any facility containing a hazardous chemical, as defined by OSHA, must notify and report their inventory to these state commissions and the local fire department.

It is these LEPCs which work to “develop and maintain emergency plans,” as well as to identify any hazardous chemicals and attend to safety and accident prevention. They connect with local and state officials, first responders, industry representatives, the news media, hospital officials, and other members of the community. They are the entities that seek to prevent the building of nursing homes, schools, and homes too close to a facility containing hazardous material. A Dallas News 8 investigation found, however, that many residents of West, TX, had no idea dangerous material was even in their town, let alone that there was supposed to be a committee to which they could express their concerns or questions.

Dallas News  also found that 70 percent of Texas counties not only lack a fire code but are actively prohibited by the state government from adopting one. This includes McLennan County, in which West, TX, is located. Counties must either contain a population of at least 250,000, or border a county of that size, to be allowed to adopt fire codes for managing explosive and toxic chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer. This law excludes 173 of the 254 Texas counties from adopting the potentially lifesaving fire codes.

A Dallas News map shows the populations within a half mile of the 40 Texas facilities containing 10,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based material. There are at least three sites with over 6,000 people living within a half mile of this dangerous material. The buildings in the half mile surrounding the West, TX, fertilizer plant were all damaged or completely destroyed.

Although little has been done to monitor and control ammonium nitrate within Texas, the dangers associated with this fertilizer have prompted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take action. In 2007 the DHS developed the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) which “requires covered chemical facilities to prepare Security Vulnerability Assessments, which identify facility security vulnerabilities, and to develop and implement Site Security Plans, which include measures that satisfy the identified risk-based performance standards.” But West Fertilizer never filled out any of this information.

Alternative Prevention

Regulation and enforcement are not the only options for preventing these kinds disasters. Scientists have been working for years to develop a less- to non-explosive version of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Some have even been successful by diluting ammonium nitrate with other chemicals such as iron sulfate, a combination that is extremely difficult to detonate. With these alternatives and the ever growing number of casualties, not to mention the very real terrorist threat, it seems ridiculous that ammonium nitrate has not already been declared extremely hazardous. Particularly because so few farmers in the U.S. continue to use the product. Only 2 percent of fertilizer sales since 2010 have contained the dangerous compound.

So why is this particularly sensitive and dangerous blend still on the U.S. market? POGO doesn’t know of any efforts to actually remove it from the market, but there have been efforts to track the compound and to strengthen safety regulations. None of those efforts have gotten very far. Part of the blame lies with the chemical industry, which has an army of lobbyists working to keep ammonium nitrate fertilizer in production. Representatives from the Fertilizer Institute, the leading U.S. fertilizer lobby, blocked regulation that would add tracer elements to the fertilizer to assist law enforcement officials in the event of an accident. Some groups, such as the Agricultural Retailers Association, have even gone so far as to attempt to weaken potential safety regulations, and a collection of U.S. business lobbyists killed a bill in 2009 that would have tightened regulations on chemical and fertilizer factories.

Ongoing Investigations

On April 30, Senator Boxer pledged to hold a hearing to discover the cause of the explosion in West, TX. However, almost two months later there still hasn’t been a single hearing on this matter. The staff of the Committee reports that they are still planning on holding a hearing and are gathering information.

In an effort to do so, Senator Boxer sent letters to the heads of the CSB and the EPA with detailed questions about the scope and results of their investigations, requesting a response by May 16. Chairman of the CSB, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, responded with his concerns regarding The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) treatment of the site. The EPA has yet to respond to Senator Boxer and has not responded to POGO’s questions regarding its investigation.

But as bickering government agencies go head to head over this investigation, one thing has become increasingly clear: these ammonium nitrate fertilizer disasters are preventable. Whether through enforcing regulations and inspection laws already in place, developing new rules regarding the use of ammonium nitrate in fertilizers, or creating safer fertilizers, something needs to be done. This is a problem that has gone on far too long. We must not wait until another disaster occurs and more lives are lost before the government acts.

Image by Flickr user Michael Spiller.

By: Peter Stockton
Sr. Investigator, POGO

Peter Stockton, Sr. Investigator Peter Stockton is a senior investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Peter's investigations include security and safety issues at the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and nuclear power plants.

By: Lydia Dennett
Investigator, POGO

lydia dennett Lydia Dennett is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Lydia handles whistleblower intake and works on nuclear safety and security at the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Homeland Security

Authors: Lydia Dennett, Peter Stockton

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