Investigations are still ongoing to determine details on what caused the April 17, 2013 explosion in West, Texas (the subject of a previous blog). The death toll has risen to at least 14, including 10 emergency workers. Around 200 are believed to be injured. The deaths were caused by the explosion of the site AND the proximity of the victims to the site. The emergency workers were on-site fighting a fire (which was the ignition source of the explosion), but many of those injured had no real reason to be in such a proximity that they would be injured.
Warning systems and emergency notifications may have resulted in some of the non-emergency response victims getting out of harm’s way. However, warning systems and notifications like those required for other industrial sites including oil refineries and chemical plants are not required at fertilizer plants. The plant owner did not comment on emergency management plans for the site. Senator Barbara Boxer of California will attempt to determine if those requirements need to be strengthened.
However, even if a warning system had provided sufficient protection to keep nearby citizens from harm, the property damage would have been extensive. Many properties – including homes and schools – nearby were severely damaged in the blast. This has led some to believe that there should be an enforced geographical buffer between these types of industrial facilities and other types of facilities, like homes and schools. The mayor of West has suggested that the plant be rebuilt away from populated areas.
More and more concerns are being raised about the safety of the plant itself – and the safeguards that could have prevented this explosion. Despite the large amount of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the plant, the plant did not have a sprinkler system or fire barrier (which may have prevented the fire from igniting the fertilizer).
Industrial plants such as these are regulated by a host of state and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA required a worst-case scenario from the West site, which identified a release from an anhydrous ammonia storage tank. The risk of fire or explosion, and the storage of ammonium nitrate were not identified in the scenario, provided in 2011. (The facility was fined in 2006 for not filing its risk management plan.)
A key concern is the amount of fertilizer (270 tons) that was stored at the site – which was not disclosed with local governments or federal agencies. Ammonium nitrate can be used as an explosive (~2.4 tons were used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995). The high volume of ammonium nitrate was not known or disclosed to local or federal officials.
Most of the victims in this incident were first responders – who had reported to the fire, not knowing the risk they were taking. The facility had not disclosed the dangers on site, had not provided adequate protection from fire, and had provided little in the way of an effective emergency response plan.
Every industrial site should have an up-to-date risk/emergency management plan. The plan needs to be updated whenever new hazards are brought on-site or identified. It is crucial that these plans be developed and shared with local response organizations, such as fire-fighters, so that they can be prepared for any potential issues. These plans should also include community engagement to provide necessary information to people in the area as to what actions should be taken. Existing incident investigations for industrial incidents can be used as a basis for creating these plans. But, you don’t need to wait until you have a problem at your facility. Taking the lessons learned from disasters that have already taken place can save your facility – and your community – a tot of heartbreak.
Remember: A smart man learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from others’ mistakes.