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What happened in West, TX?

April 19, 2013

Two major questions surround the huge industrial explosion April 17 that killed as many as 35 people in Texas: How did it happen, and could it have been prevented?

According to various news reports, the event began as a fire at a West, TX, fertilizer plant. After firefighters began battling the blaze, an explosion ripped through the facility. The blast triggered earthquake detectors and registered as a magnitude 2.1 tremor.

The cause of the fire and subsequent explosion is unknown, but the facility is reported to have contained thousands of pounds of anhydrous ammonia. Used in the manufacturing of fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia is toxic and – under the right conditions – combustible.

The Chemical Safety Board was deployed to the scene and has begun an investigation into the blast.

Despite not presently knowing the cause of the fire and explosion, at least one stakeholder group has suggested the incident was “likely preventable.” The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a federation of local and statewide nonprofit occupational safety and health coalitions, issued a statement April 18 suggesting the fertilizer company “downplayed the risks posed by the plant.” National COSH pointed out that West Fertilizer Plant had previously stated to the Environmental Protection Agency that fire and explosion risks were not present and that the worst-case scenario would be a 10-minute ammonia gas release that would neither kill nor injure anyone.

According to National COSH, the facility was never inspected by OSHA, so it is unknown if the company was in compliance with the agency’s Process Safety Management Standard. National COSH called on more resources to be given to OSHA.

Additionally, Tom O’Connor, the executive director of National COSH, suggested the deadly explosion provides evidence for the need of stricter regulatory requirements for facilities that store hazards chemicals. To stakeholders who would argue against the idea of a regulatory fix, O’Connor issued an ominous statement:
“If the anti-regulatory sentiment currently plaguing Congress and much of Washington, D.C. continues, disasters like last night’s explosion will continue to happen,” he said.

The opinions expressed in "Washington Wire" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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