Green Room

Reuters: West Fertilizer plant didn’t disclose ammonium nitrate stores

posted at 12:15 pm on April 20, 2013 by

The explosion in West was a tragic accident, not terrorism, but it may have been uniquely vulnerable to the latter without federal regulators knowing it.  Reuters reports this morning that West Fertilizer stored more than a thousand times more than the reporting level of ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in both fertilizer and certain types of bombs, without disclosing it as required to the Department of Homeland Security:

The fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate – which can also be used in bomb making – unaware of any danger there.

Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year. …

Firms are responsible for self reporting the volumes of ammonium nitrate and other volatile chemicals they hold to the DHS, which then helps measure plant risks and devise security and safety plans based on them.

Since the agency never received any so-called top-screen report from West Fertilizer, the facility was not regulated or monitored by the DHS under its CFAT standards, largely designed to prevent sabotage of sites and to keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.

The DHS focuses “specifically on enhancing security to reduce the risk of terrorism at certain high-risk chemical facilities,” said agency spokesman Peter Boogaard. “The West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, Texas is not currently regulated under the CFATS program.”

Bear in mind that this may not have anything to do with the fire and explosion, at least not directly.  The reporting requirements are in place so that DHS can ensure that proper security exists to keep terrorists from getting their hands on enough ammonium nitrate to conduct an Oklahoma City-size attack.  It’s not necessarily a safety regimen in the day-to-day operational sense.

Still, if West Fertilizer wasn’t in compliance with those regulations, it may indicate that they cut corners elsewhere, too.  And you can bet that Texas and the federal government will be wondering the same thing in the aftermath of the devastation that took place in West this week.

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Ugh. I can smell the jackals (lawyers) circling for a piece of the lawsuit pie even while they’re still hosing down the rubble.

Not to mention, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Big Sis & Co. call for the owners of the plant to be jailed indefinitely over this while protecting the *rights* of a certain Boston based nutbag…

BlaxPac on April 20, 2013 at 12:23 PM

Clearly, we need to regulate more of everything then.

-Washington DC

CycloneCDB on April 20, 2013 at 1:20 PM

I wonder what the point of storing all of this fertilizer is? I can maybe understand it if they are getting ready to fill some really big orders that will quickly deplete their inventory but other than that it doesn’t seem like a good business or safety practice. To me, the person who knows nothing of the business.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 1:20 PM

CycloneCDB on April 20, 2013 at 1:20 PM

It’s like everything they do, they make more laws, higher high price paper pushers in D.C. and make no provisions for regulators. I bet we would have a better safer country, more jobs nationally and more freedom in general if there were less employed in Washington and more employed in Everytown, USA.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 1:23 PM

They weren’t taking shortcuts. I’m sure that a lot of businesses with only 49 employees do NOT know what they will need to do differently when they hire that 50th person.

This company was diligent in reporting their stores to the State of Texas. That implies to me not a shortcut but an ignorance of the law.

unclesmrgol on April 20, 2013 at 1:47 PM

My first thought was that this endangered the lives of the firemen fighting the fire but.. the state already knew.

What’s the point of the report that they’re EEVVILLL people for not filing a federally required report?

Must I point out that President Obama is guilty of the same for not preparing a budget on time?

Or that the Senate is constitutionally negligent for doing the same?

Do I see such hot and bothered reports from Reuters? No… imagine that…

Laws are for thee… not for me…

Skywise on April 20, 2013 at 2:13 PM

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 1:20 PM

For all we know the plant may produce 100s of tons of fertilizer every day. 270 tons of amonium nitrate might be delivered to the plant twice a week.

Like probably every business in the country, the plant was in violation of some law.

You’d think it’d be pretty obvious that a fertilizer plant would have more than 400 lbs of the stuff on hand.

jhffmn on April 20, 2013 at 3:33 PM

jhffmn on April 20, 2013 at 3:33 PM

You are absolutely right and as I admitted above, I am clueless. You have to admit that having “1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).” sounds a lot scarier than stopping and thinking about what the heck they could do with only 400 lbs. And what would a “safety oversight” mean? There is an art to these kinds of stories and plenty of lawyers who exploit them.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 3:53 PM

Oh, right. If only Janet Napolitano had known. Then this wouldn’t have happened.

It’s a fertilizer factory. I think DHS could have assumed they had more than 400 pounds of it every day. 400 pounds won’t even supply the average farmer.

Yes, if only DHS had known. Give me a break.

rdbrewer on April 20, 2013 at 4:12 PM

Aside from the bone being tossed to the media over this story (which will, of course, result in more micromanaging….”don’t let a bad situation go to waste”), this explosion was caused when H20 was sprayed at a high velocity on the fire which was burning in the vicinity of the Ammonia Nitrate.

Ammonium nitrate is a colorless solid. It dissolves in water. It makes water cold when it dissolves. It is an oxidizing agent. When it is heated gently, it turns into water and nitrous oxide. It can detonate when heated strongly. There were several disasters where ammonium nitrate exploded. Ammonium nitrate fertilizers were banned in some places because they were used to make explosives.

Same thing happened in the huge explosion at Texas City in 1947.

Don’t let these guys pull the wool over our eyes. Has nada to do with the fire.

avagreen on April 20, 2013 at 4:29 PM

Forgot the link:
https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonium_nitrate

Husband is PhD Chemist.

avagreen on April 20, 2013 at 4:30 PM

Let me correct myself: Husband says when an ammonia nitrate fire has water sprayed on it, it explodes.

avagreen on April 20, 2013 at 5:03 PM

Reuters reports this morning that West Fertilizer stored more than a thousand times more than the reporting level of ammonium nitrate,

I could see a few pounds here or there but a 1000x the reporting level?….

c’mon fellas…

ted c on April 20, 2013 at 5:07 PM

I could see a few pounds here or there but a 1000x the reporting level?….

c’mon fellas…

ted c on April 20, 2013 at 5:07 PM

The reporting level is 400 lbs. This place sells to farmers, and 400 pounds is enough for maybe three acres.

juliesa on April 20, 2013 at 5:37 PM

As you imply, I think what’s more relevant is if the fertilizer was stored improperly and if the necessary safety equipment was present.

juliesa on April 20, 2013 at 5:41 PM

How can anyone purchase that much ammonium nitrate without the federal government knowing about it this long after 9/11? Doesn’t anyone else think this is incompetent of the federal government do be dependent on voluntary reports? Imagine if the bomb in Boston used a bunch of ammonium nitrate in a truck bomb!!

philrat on April 20, 2013 at 5:41 PM

When there are so many laws that no one can comply with them all anymore, then anyone you may choose is an outlaw. Don’t choose your friends, your cronies, protected classes, or anyone else you prefer. That’s part of crony capitalism.

Note they did disclose to the state, just not to the feds. And if you violate a federal law or regulation, any of them, you’re screwed. They will get you.

Paul-Cincy on April 20, 2013 at 5:57 PM

Ugh. I can smell the jackals (lawyers) circling for a piece of the lawsuit pie even while they’re still hosing down the rubble.

Not to mention, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Big Sis & Co. call for the owners of the plant to be jailed indefinitely over this while protecting the *rights* of a certain Boston based nutbag…

BlaxPac on April 20, 2013 at 12:23 PM

If the explosion and deaths were caused by the owners storing and using explosives without proper safety mechanism, then they should be arrested. If it turns out that they are responsible, why should they be given a pass?

AngusMc on April 20, 2013 at 6:08 PM

Alternate headline:

When conservatives learned to love being monitored by their overlords.

lorien1973 on April 20, 2013 at 7:20 PM

Wait, they informed the state but not DHS?

Count to 10 on April 20, 2013 at 7:39 PM

Don’t let these guys pull the wool over our eyes. Has nada to do with the fire.

avagreen on April 20, 2013 at 4:29 PM

The quote you have there says that it detonates when heated strongly. Wouldn’t that mean that the fire detonated it?

Count to 10 on April 20, 2013 at 7:44 PM

The quote you have there says that it detonates when heated strongly. Wouldn’t that mean that the fire detonated it?

Count to 10 on April 20, 2013 at 7:44 PM

He was referring to the law that requires them to report to DHS if they store more than 400 lbs. They reported to the state but not to DHS. The fire had nothing to do with this requirement.

Corsair on April 20, 2013 at 8:54 PM

1q

The quote you have there says that it detonates when heated strongly. Wouldn’t that mean that the fire detonated it?

Count to 10 on April 20, 2013 at 7:44 PM

The fire was there first, for sure. The explosion happened AFTER the (volunteer) firemen were there…….most likely spraying it with water to put the fire out, which is what firemen do.

[I called my husband to answer this adequately. He's not thinking this was Ammonia Nitrate b/c the size of the explosion would have been larger. That link I gave was for AN, which is what the media I'd read said it was. Now seems to be some questioning of exactly what it was.]

His answer:
The thing is you and I don’t know their inventory (AN or AA) , don’t know exactly what was on fire where, and don’t know what the firemen were spraying water on. If a Anhydrous Ammonia vessel is being heated strongly by adjacent fire, then vapor will begin to rapidly escape from the safety valve. This will burn, and if the pressure goes high fast enough, vessel rupture and something called B.L.E.V.E (“boiling-liquid expanding vapor explosion”, particularly in a situation where the tank is exposed to an external heat source, such as a facility fire) occurs.
Other scenario is ammonia nitrate fire: water will not put that fire out, but will accumulate a hard shell over the part of the AN that is burning down below, and this creates a container for local pressure to increase sufficient for detonation to result.

Either of which has nothing to do with the quantity of fertilizer there.

He’s a farmboy and his statement about the reporting level being 400Lbs is “B***S**T. Not enough to p**Z on.”

avagreen on April 20, 2013 at 8:58 PM

You’d think it’d be pretty obvious that a fertilizer plant would have more than 400 lbs of the stuff on hand.

jhffmn on April 20, 2013 at 3:33 PM

This.

BallisticBob on April 20, 2013 at 11:03 PM

They weren’t taking shortcuts… This company was diligent in reporting their stores to the State of Texas. That implies to me not a shortcut but an ignorance of the law.

unclesmrgol on April 20, 2013 at 1:47 PM

We dont know that yet. You assume that’s true but until all the facts are out we really should not make any such assumptions. The company may not be criminally negligent… but it’s naive to think that they’re definitely not right now. Let the facts come out.

MikeknaJ on April 20, 2013 at 11:27 PM

First we need some proof that DHS did not loose the paperwork. Make them prove their story.

Slowburn on April 21, 2013 at 4:57 AM

“Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance.”

They must be kidding…400 lbs!? A small lawn can use at least 1/4 of that. A golf course uses many times that amount (probably on one hole).

DHS is useless, e.g. Boston Bombing. Load up on regulations and even more excuses to cover their expensive existence…

Karmi on April 21, 2013 at 8:00 AM

There is an art to these kinds of stories and plenty of lawyers who exploit them.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 3:53 PM

Lawyers and bureaucrats. Just wait: the owners of this plant are going to be dragged through the mud.

SagebrushPuppet on April 21, 2013 at 8:44 AM

What is really important is did they disclose their stores to the Local Emergency Reaction Commission?

As the Environmental Coordinator for the facility where I work, I can tell you that every year, the plant received notice that their SARA tier II filing is due by April 1st. SARA is the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act. Tier II is also known as Community Right to Know. This is overseen by EPA.I am certain that the plant disclosed the Ammonium Nitrate stores to EPA, the Texas environmental agency and the information was shared with the Emergency Planning commission.

Unlike DHS, which just makes rules that companies are just expected to somehow find out. EPA makes damn sure that everyone knows and toes the line.

DHS had no role in what happened – it wasn’t a terrorist activity. EPA does have a direct role, there are specific laws to make sure that chemicals that can pose a threat to the surrounding community are reported, and that the information is available to emergency response.

Here in Indiana, if there is fire at a facility, the fire department can go online (as can any citizen) and determine what substances are present, what the risks are, and how to deal with them.

If this company didn’t disclose the Ammonium Nitrate in their SARA Tier II report, that would be a huge problem. DHS? screw them.

HoosierHawk on April 21, 2013 at 10:17 AM

This is a tragedy. But the news reporting that will trickle out later will be a bit more difficult to complacently accept by the casual reader or blog pundit.

A well trained fire brigade would never make an attempt to challenge a fire at a chemical company without first having contact with the EH&S rep from the company and a complete set of material safety data sheets bearing clear instructions about how to handle all the chemicals involved in the event of any emergency.

avagreen on April 20, 2013 at 4:30 PM Draws the correct reference to the point. Especially with oxidizers and potential oxidizers. Oxidizers are especially frightful because they keep two legs of the fire triangle (oxygen and heat) on-board if you simply add water (oxygen molecules – O2 – rapidly become free when water molecules – H2O – dissolve the bond and then heat is generated.) It takes about 3 minutes. You can fight an oxidizer fire with water, but it requires an overwhelming volume of water to provide dilution and suffocation.

The first fault lies in the fertilizer company not properly partnering with the fire department. That is balls. Forgetting to communicate with DHS is trivial.

ericdijon on April 21, 2013 at 11:45 AM

I have to say this: Since the DHS admits that their security measures are not due to any danger from vast amounts of ammonium nitrate, but to help prevent the stuff from being acquired by terrorists, DHS must suspect something more than just a mishap.

Why would a terrorist or terrorist group go to all the trouble to steal the stuff when all they’d have to do is pipe a bunch of diesel into a tank or vat with the ammonium nitrate already in it and set it off?

Think about it. How much fertilizer was destroyed or scattered and rendered useless? How much of a strain will that put on local farmers?

Questions need to be asked and answered.

Woody

woodcdi on April 21, 2013 at 12:01 PM

I wonder what the point of storing all of this fertilizer is? I can maybe understand it if they are getting ready to fill some really big orders that will quickly deplete their inventory but other than that it doesn’t seem like a good business or safety practice. To me, the person who knows nothing of the business.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 1:20 PM

I would assume that agricultural application of fertilizers is somewhat seasonal. Might it be possible they were stockpiling inventory in anticipation of spring/summer demand from large growers/farms?

Difficultas_Est_Imperium on April 21, 2013 at 2:26 PM

I wonder what the point of storing all of this fertilizer is? I can maybe understand it if they are getting ready to fill some really big orders that will quickly deplete their inventory but other than that it doesn’t seem like a good business or safety practice. To me, the person who knows nothing of the business.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 1:20 PM

Farmers use fertilizer in the springtime. 400 lbs. isn’t enough to treat more than a few acres. End of stupid story. End.

oldroy on April 21, 2013 at 4:40 PM

Horse crap. Texas Environmental already examined this issue and the plant was in full compliance with all existing regulations. They gave a press conference on this issue last Wednesday. In addition CBS Dallas examined it and found the same thing that Texas Environmental found out, the plant had a clean record with the exception of an odor violation in 2006 which was corrected.

Limerick on April 21, 2013 at 4:45 PM

More prespective — 400 pounds is eight 50# sacks .. wouldn’t cover the bed of your half-ton pickup. “Reporting Requirements” indeed.
Heck, there was propably 400 pounds spilled on the warehouse floor.

Then — ‘the fire department didn’t know’ ?? Consider that, in a town of 2800 people deep in the heart of flyover country, with a volunteer fire brigade, more than a few of the plant employees were likely ALSO on the volunteer fire brigade.
In all probability, the local fire department had a much better handle on the place than a paper pusher in Austin or DC could ever hope for. Add to that list any asshat reporter in NewYawk.

/.

CaveatEmpty on April 21, 2013 at 5:44 PM

Perspective on 400# — that’s eight 50-pound sacks .. wouldn’t cover the bed of your pickup truck. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t more than that spilled on the warehouse floor.

A single 44-foot railroad hopper-car might carry as much as 260,000 pounds of material .. “OMG – thats 650 TIMES TIME LIMIT”. You expect a DHS report every time a train rolls up?

And about ‘surprising the fire department’ — in a town of 2800 folks, you might expect that more than a few volunteers on the fire brigade might have worked in the plant !?!?!?

/the stench of azzhattery is strong with this one.
/.

CaveatEmpty on April 22, 2013 at 9:46 AM

When there are so many laws that no one can comply with them all anymore, then anyone you may choose is an outlaw. Don’t choose your friends, your cronies, protected classes, or anyone else you prefer. That’s part of crony capitalism.

Note they did disclose to the state, just not to the feds. And if you violate a federal law or regulation, any of them, you’re screwed. They will get you.

Paul-Cincy on April 20, 2013 at 5:57 PM

This. As a guy who has been in manufacturing all my life I can tell you that I see things differently than most non-manufacturers. Obama alone has added some 8000 new regulations. Most manufacturers are small to mid sized. The GE’s of the world are actually few and far between (though more visible). Now GE can afford to have a compliance department that sits around and reads new regulations all day long, constantly updating their processes and plants to comply. Everyone else can’t afford that. There are so many regulations on the books – and so many new ones coming on line, that NO ONE can be 100% in compliance – especially not the 99% of manufacturers who are small to mid sized.

My guess is still that someone just made a mistake. It happens. In this case it happened to be a serious mistake.

Free Indeed on April 22, 2013 at 10:09 AM

The math.

Ammonium Nitrate = plant food = 18-46-0 this “plant food” is 18 parts Ammonium Nitrate and all food grains produce much better, when food grains produce much better humans eat more cheaper.

that is the math on it

Every famer in the U.S.A. knows that amonium nitrate blows up, that the dust from it is a danger.

You can not fix stupid.

APACHEWHOKNOWS on April 22, 2013 at 10:32 AM

You also can bet your ass there where illegal immigrants from Mexico working at the plant who could not read one word of the English warnings posted in the area.

APACHEWHOKNOWS on April 22, 2013 at 10:34 AM

I wonder what the point of storing all of this fertilizer is? I can maybe understand it if they are getting ready to fill some really big orders that will quickly deplete their inventory but other than that it doesn’t seem like a good business or safety practice. To me, the person who knows nothing of the business.

Cindy Munford on April 20, 2013 at 1:20 PM

Because the local farmers use it. They also had lots of trailer-mounted anhydrous ammonia tanks stored there; I imagine they rent those out to farmers applying it to their fields. Out in the country you see lots of them in use in farmers’ fields.

Ward Cleaver on April 22, 2013 at 10:59 AM

For all we know the plant may produce 100s of tons of fertilizer every day. 270 tons of amonium nitrate might be delivered to the plant twice a week.

Like probably every business in the country, the plant was in violation of some law.

You’d think it’d be pretty obvious that a fertilizer plant would have more than 400 lbs of the stuff on hand.

jhffmn on April 20, 2013 at 3:33 PM

News reports keep calling it a “plant”, but West Fertilizer Co. didn’t produce AN, they just stored it and sold it to local farmers.

Ward Cleaver on April 22, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Question to America.

How many of the illegal Mexicans working at the plant will be on the killed list?

Like the high pressure pipe line work?

When an illegal gets hurt, they get a pickup ride to the safe house and the coyote operation takes the illegal home or to a hospital and where the injury happened not listed.

Then the local coyote calls to the El Paso safe house and a pickup hauls the replacement wage slave from Mexico to the job site.

There is no record of them.

There is guilt for all of U.S. for this evil.

APACHEWHOKNOWS on April 22, 2013 at 11:22 AM

News reports keep calling it a “plant”, but West Fertilizer Co. didn’t produce AN, they just stored it and sold it to local farmers.

Ward Cleaver on April 22, 2013 at 11:01 AM

All the more reason to suspect foul play.

Woody

woodcdi on April 24, 2013 at 6:51 PM