Learn from the West Fertilizer Plant Explosion

Third-party assessments can provide crucial insights

By Peter Wilmarth, SSOE Group

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In the wake of devastating accidents, companies that use hazardous chemicals in everyday operations invariably face a litany of safety concerns from the public and regulators. Last year’s tragic ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured more than 160, and damaged or destroyed more than 150 buildings is one example of a cataclysmic event that places the chemical industry under intense scrutiny.

Despite heightened awareness of safety issues following such an event, long-term solutions for preventing similar accidents are woefully slow to emerge. Companies might be unsure how to proceed and where to focus. Establishing or enhancing safety measures for complex and inherently dangerous operations can be daunting. Cost—real or perceived—can further hinder progress.

State and local entities further complicate matters when they fail to adopt, or prohibit the adoption of, codes that could potentially avert disaster. The state of Texas, for example, prohibits almost 70% of its counties (largely based on population) from adopting fire codes. No full-time professional fire departments are located anywhere in up to 85% of the counties banned from having fire codes. The cost of funding fire departments, even just purchasing basic firefighting gear, is simply prohibitive for many smaller Texas counties. Yet, several of these counties without a fire code are home to companies that store and use dangerous chemicals in hazardous industrial processes. West Fertilizer’s property spans the town of West and unincorporated McLennan County. Under state law, both the town and the county could have adopted a fire code— but didn’t [1].

The intricate web of federal regulatory agencies— the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Homeland Security, to name a few— can’t provide full-spectrum safety coverage for businesses that use hazardous chemicals. While each agency addresses its own human health and safety issues, no one agency enforces a comprehensive safety regimen covering all aspects of an industrial operation.

Coordination among the different federal agencies and with state regulators often has been ineffective, leading to a patchwork of safety controls. Site visits by these agencies typically are few and far between. OSHA hadn’t been to West Fertilizer since 1985, when “a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia” resulted in a $30 fine [2]. The federal EPA last inspected the plant in 2006, fining the company $2,300 for failing to update a risk management plan [3].

When a major accident occurs, the causes sometimes are difficult to establish and the keys to avoiding future incidents can be lost in the slow progress of lengthy, large-scale investigations. Last year, ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, reported that OSHA, the EPA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) all were investigating the West accident. At the time, the CSB, which is an independent federal agency tasked with examining chemical accidents at industrial sites, also was still investing a 2010 oil refinery blast in northern Washington state that killed five and a 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 [4]. (A variety of issues now afflict the CSB — see: “Turmoil Takes a Toll on Chemical Safety Board.”) The preliminary CSB findings indicate that the fire and explosion at West Fertilizer were preventable. The causes were a combination of the company failing to take necessary steps to minimize the hazards and the inability of regulatory agencies to identify the problems and force corrective measures [5].

Such investigations don’t prevent implementation of new or improved safety measures, but their duration contributes to a state of uncertainty for companies. Increased regulatory oversight, the very mechanism that might logically compel industry to adopt safer technologies today, can send companies running. While there’s widespread agreement on the need to enhance safety measures, a strong debate is raging within industry as to whether increased regulatory oversight is the best means through which to achieve this goal. Many companies actively oppose new requirements, while others move to areas where oversight is lax and compliance can be avoided.

“While there is…a strong current within industry to adopt…safer technology as a best practice, many still oppose any actual regulatory requirements, arguing they are too costly and prescriptive. We can’t wait for corporations to volunteer, because the accidents continue, often with devastating consequences,” says Rafael Moure-Eraso, chair ofthe CSB [6].

The chemical industry has many reasons for concern about its blemished safety record. The possible costs of a major accident are enormous. Deaths, injuries and physical damage are the most serious consequences. However, the costs to a firm’s reputation, the threat of litigation, and the ability to operate unhindered in a compromised environment are significant long-term problems. Faced with this situation, many companies are seeking a more effective path to mitigate risk.

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