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ATF says fatal Texas fertiliser blast was a criminal act

12 May 2016

On May 12 the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said that after one of its most extensive investigations ever, it had concluded that the fire that caused the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company three years ago was a criminal act. The blast on April 17, 2013 killed 15, injured more than 260, flattened dozens of buildings and caused an estimated $230 million worth of damage.

A drone image of the aftermath of the West explosion - Image: CSB
A drone image of the aftermath of the West explosion - Image: CSB

At a news conference in West, ATF Special Agent in Charge Robert Elder told reporters that investigators spent more than $2 million, building life-size replicas of parts of the plant and interviewing more than 400 people, to reach the conclusion that a fire was set in the seed room of the fertiliser distribution company.

Elder emphasised the meticulous nature of the investigation and said all natural and accidental causes had been ruled out. He refused to elaborate on the nature of the evidence found, but said that no arrests had been made so far and asked for the public's help to find who was responsible.

He said former West paramedic Bryce Reed was not considered a suspect. Reed was arrested in the weeks following the explosion after authorities said he tried to dispose of materials needed to make a pipe bomb. But he and his attorney maintained he had been assembling fireworks for his own entertainment. The paramedic was charged with possession of an unregistered explosive device but pleaded guilty to lesser felonies and was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison.

ATF Houston division spokeswoman Nicole Strong said there was no evidence of terrorism. The agency is offering up to $50,000 for information leading to an arrest, and McLennan County Crimestoppers another $2,000.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued a report in January which concluded that limited regulatory oversight, poor hazard awareness, inadequate emergency planning and the proximity of the plant to nearby homes all led to the event's severity, but the board did not identify the cause of the fire that led to the explosion. The CSB said poor building ventilation and wooden storage bins contributed to the intensity of the blaze, and contamination of the ammonium nitrate fertiliser made it prone to explode.

Twelve firefighters and three others were killed in the blast, which left a crater 93 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The damage was inflicted across a 37-square-block area, destroying more than 500 homes, apartments and a nursing home. Had it happened earlier in the day with school in session, hundreds more people, including children, would likely have been killed and injured, the CSB concluded.

The CSB found that almost all Texas fertiliser plants like the one that exploded are within a quarter-mile of a residence, and little has been done to protect the public.

Even though the West Fertilizer blast prompted an order from President Barack Obama to improve transparency and cooperation among agencies that deal with the chemical industry, little progress has been made.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has said it will not update decades-old regulations before the end of Obama's presidency. One rule change that would have put more businesses storing ammonium nitrate under OSHA enforcement has not been implemented.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed changes to one of its key chemical facility safety programs, but that would not cover small and medium-sized fertiliser storage facilities.

These changes have anyway been opposed by the chemical industry and a proposal for companies to use inherently safer chemicals and processes when possible will be voluntary, rather than mandatory.


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