Toll of the Chemical Explosion
As a result of the blast, 12 people lost their lives. Many among the dead were first responders. Firefighter and paramedics entered the area of the fertilizer plant in order to address a fire alarm prior to the blast. They were then in a hazardous position when the blast took place. In addition, approximately 200 people were injured.
The effects of the explosion on the surrounding landscape were significant as well. A nearby 50-unit apartment complex was decimated, and a nursing home and close-by schools also sustained significant damage. The main explosion at the fertilizer plant registered at 2.1 on the Richter scale, a form of measurement usually used to measure the magnitude of an earthquake.
Dangers of Ammonium Nitrate
Prior to the chemical explosion, West Fertilizer blended and sold fertilizer to farms in Texas. According to a document which West Fertilizer filed with the state of Texas, the company had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on-hand at the time of the explosion. Due to the hazardous nature of this amount of ammonium nitrate and a lack of contingency plan in the event of an emergency, West Fertilizer had previously been fined in 2006 by the EPA.
When in liquid form, ammonium nitrate is a relatively stable substance. However, when ammonium nitrate takes on the form of vapor and undergoes heat or pressure, it can become highly explosive. Ammonium nitrate was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, but is a dangerous substance even when not purposely tampered with.
Hazardous Material Regulations
The explosion at West Fertilizer is a tragedy which has left many in mourning. It serves as a reminder of the inherent dangers that can come with storing and working with volatile substances like ammonium nitrate. However, the events at West Fertilizer are also an example of the potential results of improper reporting to a regulatory agency, and the results of too many cooks in the kitchen.
West Fertilizer was required by law to report their hazardous materials to three different regulatory agencies in their locale. They were also required to report to a variety of federal regulatory agencies. Despite the overlap in reporting, West Fertilizer received very little in the way of regulatory scrutiny or inspection prior to the explosion on April 17th.
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