Lessons Learned from the West Texas Fertilizer Explosion

Todd Oliver, PE, CSP

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Nov 12, 2019

The West Fertilizer Company located in West, Texas, had been in operation since 1962. Since its inception, the city has slowly been building closer to the facility—originally located in the middle of farm land with no close neighbors. On April 17, 2013 an explosion of ammonium nitrate (AN) stored at the facility resulted in 15 deaths and 260 injuries. This devastating event highlighted the need for the industry to adapt and change how it addressed safe chemical storage practices.

The Chemical Safety Board Findings

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released its findings on January 28, 2016 including recommendations for facility owners, first responders, and AHJs. A clear outcome of the investigation was the need for facility operators handling and storing AN to be aware of the hazards and safe handling practices specific to AN, including the requirements laid out in the International Fire Code (IFC). Those requirements included rated construction, automatic sprinklers, detection, ventilation for off gassing of AN, and separation requirements.

Most of these IFC recommendations are already applicable for new construction. In a new building, designed under current International Building Code (IBC) and IFC regulations, a combustible construction building without sprinklers is not allowed to store a high level of potentially unstable chemicals. The IFC regulations also apply for existing buildings such as the West Texas Fertilizer facility. For new and existing buildings, the facility must follow existing limits for hazardous chemicals, referred to as the Maximum Allowable Quantity (MAQ). In the case of an existing building, the MAQ for the facility must be followed regardless of when the facility was built.

Take a Chemical Inventory

The first step to understanding whether you are over the MAQ is to take an inventory of all the chemicals stored in your building. Knowing the hazardous materials in storage and use is a prerequisite to identifying the hazards present in your facility and protecting your employees and the public, but many facilities fail to take this basic step. Once the materials and their hazard classes are known, the thresholds for various building and process protection systems, such as fire sprinklers, ventilation and secondary containment, and subsequently personal protective equipment (PPE) needs, can be determined and applied.

The CSB estimates that approximately 1,300 facilities around the United States are storing fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate similar to that of the West Texas Fertilizer Company. How many of those facilities have appropriate safety measures for protecting lives and property from an explosion? What other hazards have not been identified at your facility? Is your facility currently storing chemicals above the MAQ?

Whether dealing with a new or existing building, there are valuable lessons to be learnt from the West, Texas tragedy. The most important of them all is to understand the nature of chemicals stored in your building and to make sure your building is properly designed for the hazards those chemicals can create. HazAdvisr is a cost-effective software that can establish whether your facility is safe and compliant. With our team of engineering experts, we can help design safety measures appropriate to your facility to prevent the next West, Texas Explosion.