West Blast Victims Remembered

By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) — At 7:51 p.m. April 17, people in West, Texas, will pause in silence.

It was the very moment one year ago that a fire in a wooden storage shed holding 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate at West Fertilizer Co. triggered a loud, violent blast that could be felt even in other Texas cities.

The powerful explosion changed forever the face of the tiny town of 2,800 residents, as 15 people died, mostly firefighters, and hundreds of others were injured at the north end of town.

Thursday, a Baylor University choir will fill the West Fair and Rodeo grounds with sounds of hope. The town’s mayor will speak. An inspirational video will celebrate the heroes and the ongoing rebuild. Prayers will be offered.

West is moving on — slowly.

"I do not want the explosion to deter the city of West," Mayor Tommy Muska told DTN. "We can move in a positive direction and show the world that it did not define us. We’re going to be alright. We’re going to do what we need to do to get by."

Whether lessons were learned in Texas and across the country remain to be seen.

Texas lawmakers and officials have been deliberate in what they do. In the past year, state and federal governments across the country have taken little or no legislative action in response to the West disaster.

A federal working group continues to look at potential changes to national policies short of drafting new laws.

Rep. Joseph Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said whether Texas citizens outside of West understand the seriousness of the issues is an open question.

"I don’t think the blast had an effect on their intensity," Pickett said about Texas communities’ view of AN safety as a whole. "I think there’s still a feeling it can’t happen here."

Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, a lifelong firefighter who understands what small communities and their volunteer firefighters face, told DTN he is motivated to instill in the Texas conscience the need to take AN seriously.

Connealy’s staff has spent the past year touring the state and collecting data on Texas stockpiles. His work yielded a stunning revelation: The conditions that led to the West explosion are fairly common among those who store AN across Texas still today.

Fifty-two locations out of a total of 97 that store 10,000 pounds or more of AN in the state store the chemical in wood frame structures similar to West, Connealy said.

Federal investigators and others determined that had West Fertilizer stored AN in a concrete structure away from seed and other materials and had a working sprinkler system, the explosion may not have occurred.

TEXAS CHANGES

State lawmakers are considering fundamental changes to how the state oversees these facilities.

For starters, the state created a search function on the fire marshal’s website, allowing users to punch in a zip code to identify nearby AN stockpiles. The website also includes links to local fire departments.

Such a move would be a step forward to share information with the public about AN stockpiles, as most states require lengthy information requests before making such data available. Some states keep those locations confidential.

Fertilizer blending facilities and others are required to report AN stockpile amounts and other information as part of the federal Tier II reporting program. Connealy said he found 18 Texas facilities didn’t file reports. He said many facilities "didn’t know they had to report."

During the past year, the fire marshal started and continues a tour of counties across the state, meeting with local community leaders and firefighters to talk about what happened in West and to share best-management practices for AN storage and handling.

For now, a statewide information tour is about all Connealy’s office can do in response to a tragedy that he said "had a profound impact on me personally."

The state fire marshal doesn’t have jurisdiction to inspect the facilities and Connealy said he’s not in a hurry to recommend sweeping regulatory changes.

"You don’t want to create a public policy until you have all the data," he said.

"We’ve accessed a number of experts to determine the best approach to prevent another West. We have to segregate materials from combustible materials. When you look at public policy, these businesses have slim profit margins. We will offer solutions and I think we can resolve with minimal cost."

FIRE CODE, TRAINING

While there isn’t a statewide fire code, Connealy said most of the populated areas of the state including counties with 250,000 or more residents have local fire codes.

"We’re not trying to get rid of businesses," he said. "We’re trying to keep them in business. There are some relatively minor things that can be done. We want to make sure this never happens again."

There continues to be a "significant lack of training" for firefighters across the state on how to fight fires similar to West, Connealy said.

"In some cases a fire is too significant based on a structure or it has hazardous materials and they should back off and let it burn," he said.

"We need to make sure they’re getting that training."

LEGISLATIVE EFFORTS

Pickett said lawmakers have to perform a balancing act between public safety and creating new regulations.

"The bottom line is, personally I think we need to have some changes at lots of different levels," he said. "The state fire marshal needs a little more authority than that office has. I don’t want to change roles and duties that the agency has. Nobody is charged with making sure this chemical is safe.

"I was careful not to take a knee-jerk reaction to the explosion. We could have filed a number of bills. We’re not looking to create a regulatory monstrosity," Pickett said.

Creating a state fire code is "not something I’m going to recommend. I am going to propose the narrow ability for the fire marshal to have some regulatory power with dangerous chemicals," Pickett said.

"There are people who live in unincorporated areas on purpose — because it is their choice. I think we can find a way we can identify, secure and set best practices for the facilities themselves.

"We’re trying to do a delicate balance, but we can’t do business as usual."

Pickett said his committee intends to have draft legislation completed this summer. That could require such facilities to have a minimum amount of insurance coverage, he said.

West Fertilizer had just $1 million insurance ahead of a disaster that caused, by some estimates, more than $100 million in damage.

"The industry is open about that," Pickett said. "We want to see recommendations solidified. The insurance industry on their own is looking at facilities to make recommendations. We need to have something in place to take care of problems."

Since the West tragedy, there have been questions about whether volunteer firefighters across the country are prepared to handle blazes involving AN and other potentially dangerous chemicals.

Pickett said the legislature could also address a need for more state funds for expanded volunteer firefighter training needs. "We have got to figure out a way within the budget goals to make firefighter training available," he said. "So many volunteer firefighter departments do it on their own."

OTHER EFFORTS

So far only Texas has responded with a significant statewide effort to look at potential changes in state law and other issues.

Although Tennessee and Missouri also are among the states with the largest AN stockpiles — Missouri is the nation’s largest AN user — DTN’s research found legislative efforts have not been made in either state to further secure those stockpiles since the West explosion.

"I have not heard of any legislation currently being proposed by the Missouri Legislature on this topic," said Joseph Slater, secretary of the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials.

"There are other forces at work that will potentially have a much faster impact than legislation would."

Fertilizer dealers in Missouri still wait to see what the U.S. Department of Homeland Security does with an Ammonium Nitrate Security Program final rule that closed a comment period in March, he said.

A spokesperson with DHS told DTN "the department is carefully considering the issues raised and information provided in the comments received" during the comment period.

The rule would implement a December 2007 amendment to the Homeland Security Act entitled "Secure Handling of Ammonium Nitrate." The amendment requires DHS to "regulate the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate by an ammonium nitrate facility … to prevent the misappropriation or use of ammonium nitrate in an act of terrorism."

A presidential executive order last year initiated a working group that includes EPA, USDA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and others.

That group continues to solicit feedback from stakeholders about best practices and to identify a wide variety of possible changes to federal policy to improve chemical safety. The group is expected to issue a progress update sometime this month, according to an EPA spokesperson.

Federal lawmakers, however, have done little legislatively in response to the disaster.

On April 3, the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies passed the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Program Authorization and Accountability Act of 2014.

The bill would improve the certification process of chemical facilities and allow third-party audits and inspections with the approval of the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

That bill, however, doesn’t directly address the issues raised in West.

Just eight states have ammonium nitrate storage laws including Iowa, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Nevada, Maryland, New York and New Jersey, but all of them pre-date the West disaster by at least eight years.


Editor’s Note: To see complete DTN coverage of the West, Texas explosion aftermath, please see the DTN/The Progressive Farmer In-depth site at http://www.dtn.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow Todd Neeley on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

(ES/CZ/BAS)