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‘Patchwork’ Rules on Explosive Fertilizer Agent Put Lives, Towns at Risk

Photo by A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive/Flickr Creative Commons

Ammonia nitrate, used in manufacturing fertilizer, is a dangerous and highly combustible explosive, as shown by the April explosion that killed 14 people including 10 firefighters and leveled the West Fertilizer Co. plant in the town of West, Texas.

But the rules that govern its use and storage—30 tons of it were at West Fertilizer—fall under “a patchwork of U.S. safety standards and guidance—a patchwork that has many large holes,” Rafael Moure-Eraso, chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), told a Senate hearing Thursday.   

He said these holes include the use of combustible wooden buildings and wooden storage bins, sprinklers generally are not required and there are no federal, state or local rules restricting the storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate near homes, schools and hospitals.

Ammonium nitrate is not included on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA's) list that would have required West Fertilizer to establish and follow the Process Safety Management or Risk Management programs, which are designed to prevent catastrophic incidents or off-site damage in the event of an accident.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does have some rules covering ammonia nitrate, they are inadequate, said Moure-Eraso. In addition, the West Fertilizer plant was last inspected by OSHA in 1985.  

Overall, said Moure-Eraso, both the EPA and OSHA need to take stronger regulatory and inspection actions to protect workers and the public from the dangers of chemical facilities across the country.

Time and again the CSB has found large chemical hazards—capable of causing major disasters—residing in facilities that have largely escaped regulatory scrutiny….The bigger picture in process safety is that EPA and OSHA resources are under duress. Regulations need to be modernized—but more inspection and prevention are needed as well. 

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, said:

Federal safety and health officials must use all available tools, including—and most important—updated Risk Management Plans, which are required under the law, the best training methods and new technologies. Lives are at stake and action must be taken now.

She demanded that the EPA act within two weeks to adopt a decade-old safety recommendation from the CSB on the storage, handling and use of ammonia nitrate.

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.

View an archived webcast of the hearing and read all the witness testimony on the committee’s website.

Read the CSB’s preliminary report.

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