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Texas Fertilizer Co. Cited for Safety Violations in Blast that Killed 15

Photo courtesy of IAFF

The company that operated the West, Texas, fertilizer plant where 30 tons of highly explosive ammonia nitrate—stored in wooden sheds without sprinkler systems and near other combustible material—caught fire, exploded and killed 15 people, including 10 firefighters, in April was cited for two dozen serious safety violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA issued the citations Wednesday but, because of the Republican government shutdown, the agency was unable to announce the action. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, announced the safety violations Thursday.

Among other violations, West Fertilizer Co. was cited for unsafe handling and storage of the anhydrous ammonia and ammonia nitrate that exploded and leveled large parts of the town of West. The company also was cited for not having an emergency response plan. OSHA is proposing fines totaling $118,300.

But investigators have not been able to determine what sparked the explosion of the highly volatile fertilizer. They suspect a problem with one of the plant's electrical systems, a battery-powered golf cart or a criminal act. A state criminal investigation remains open.

Also after the blast, it was revealed that the plant had not been inspected by OSHA since 1985.

Storage of ammonia nitrate is regulated by a “patchwork” of state and federal standards with “many holes,” the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) told a Senate hearing earlier this year.

Eleven years ago, the CSB urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—which hasn’t updated its rules on ammonia nitrate since 1997—to adopt its safety recommendations for storage, handling and use of the chemical.

In August, President Barack Obama issued an executive order for federal agencies, including OSHA and the EPA, to develop new rules to address the handling and storage of industrial chemicals, such as the ammonia nitrate fertilizer in the Texas explosion. Those rules were due by Nov. 1 but, because of the Republican government shutdown, they are likely to be delayed.

Thousands of facilities around the nation store large amounts of ammonia nitrate, especially in rural areas. That’s why new rules are desperately needed, said Boxer.

All of these things that they are cited for are pretty much standard operating procedure with how you deal with these chemicals.

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