Three months ago today in West, Texas, 30 tons of highly explosive ammonia nitrate—stored in wooden sheds without sprinkler systems and near other combustible material—caught fire, exploded and killed 14 people including 10 firefighters. The blast leveled the West Fertilizer Co., plant and demolished a good portion of the surrounding town.
Since then, despite public hearings and calls from workplace safety advocates, such as the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), for new and stringent storage and handling rules for the loosely regulated and dangerous ammonia nitrate—just 4,000 pounds of which fueled the 1994 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building where 168 people died—little has been done. Ammonia nitrate is still regulated by the same “patchwork” of state and federal standards with “many holes.”
In a recent letter to every state governor, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, urged them to take action on their state’s ammonia nitrate rules. In a press conference Boxer said:
The federal government isn’t doing enough right now.
Eleven years ago the CSB urged the Environmental Protection Agency—which hasn’t updated its rules on ammonia nitrate since 1997—to adopt its safety recommendations for storage, handling and use of the chemical. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had not inspected the plant since 1985. Neither agency has announced any enforcement action against West Fertilizer.
At a June hearing, Boxer demanded that EPA act within two weeks on the CSB recommendations.
Acting on this safety measure is critically important, because there are thousands of facilities across the nation that handle ammonium nitrate, and we know this dangerous chemical must be handled safely. If it is, disasters will be avoided.
In Texas alone there 74 facilities that store least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based explosive material as this map from the Dallas Morning News shows. The paper also reports that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said "he doesn’t believe greater regulation is necessary.”
Thousands of other ammonia nitrate plants and storage facilities are spread across the nation—especially in agricultural areas.