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Texas fertiliser plant investigation inconclusive

20 May 2013

Investigators have not ruled out arson as the main cause of the explosions at West Fertilizer that left 15 people dead, the Texas fire marshal said on May 16. State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said investigators were unable to rule out three possible causes, including a spark from a golf cart, an electrical short or an intentionally set fire.

"The cause cannot be proven to an acceptable level," Connealy told reporters.

Investigators said the incident was actually two simultaneous blasts triggered by the fire. The blasts, which registered on seismographs as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake and were felt 50 miles away, caused damage to a 37-block area of the town.

In that weeks that followed the blasts, scores of investigators have been following up on leads. At least 60 have been on site each day, conducted more than 400 interviews and spent $1 million trying to determine how the fire started and what caused the explosion, authorities said.

In 2012, the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $5,250 for storing anhydrous ammonia in tanks that lacked the proper warning labels. The agency originally recommended a $10,000 penalty, but it was reduced after the company took corrective action.

In 2006, the EPA fined it $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also investigated a complaint about the lingering smell of ammonia around the plant the same year.

Investigators from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Fire Marshal’s Office have been the lead agencies in the criminal and fire investigations.

The Dallas Morning News said Chemical Safety Board officials had limited and intermittent access to the plant as the law enforcement investigation took priority.

Investigators have said that 22 minutes after the initial report of a fire at the West facility, around 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside a seed room at the plant exploded. An additional 120 tons stored elsewhere at the plant did not explode.

The US Environmental Protection Agency requires companies with large stores of ammonium nitrate to file annual inventory reports under the Emergency Planning Community Right-to-Know Act. Ammonium nitrate is not on the EPA’s list of “extremely hazardous chemicals” that facilities must report as part of their emergency planning.

A 2011 initiative by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration excluded plants that distributed or sold ammonium nitrate from a list of targeted inspections. OSHA, which last inspected West Fertilizer in 1985, focused instead on manufacturers.

The explosion in West caused an estimated $100 million in damage, but the plant carried only a $1 million liability insurance policy. Several lawsuits against the company have already been filed.

In a statement, the CSB said it would examine “the effectiveness of regulatory coverage” by OSHA, the EPA and the state of Texas. The agency said it would study land use planning and zoning practices for “high-hazard facilities” that allowed vulnerable population centers like schools and residential areas near such plants. It would also review the emergency response to the fire, as well as preparedness planning in West, compared to good practices elsewhere.

CSB officials pointed out that other countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, have strict rules for storing ammonium nitrate. In the UK, for example, the workplace safety watchdog notes the material’s volatility and recommends it be stored in “dedicated, well-ventilated buildings that are constructed from materials that will not burn, such as concrete, bricks or steel.”

Those types of practices and improved codes could potentially become the basis of a CSB recommendation, agency officials said.

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