After a year-long investigation, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released its preliminary findings in the ammonium nitrate (AN) fire and explosion that occurred at West Fertilizer in West, Texas. Last April’s tragedy resulted in the deaths of 15 people, more than 200 injuries, and an estimated $230 million in damages to the facility and nearby community.

In a statement released last week, CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said, “The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state, and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”

Moure-Eraso stated that while AN is effective as a fertilizer, “It is also a highly hazardous reactive oxidizer chemical…From West to Texas City to Toulouse, France – no other single chemical has caused more widespread harm to the public in preventable accidents.”

According to CSB Lead Investigator, Johnnie Banks, gaps in federal and state regulations allowed for this tragedy to occur. Some of these gaps include:

  •  Texas does not have a statewide fire code. Without a fire code, local authorities are unable to hold operators accountable for the safe handling of chemicals.
  • An emergency response plan for West Fertilizer did not exist because retail sales in fertilizer are exempt under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. This left the community, as well as responding firefighters, unaware and unprepared for the potential hazards at the West facility.
  • At a federal level, “there is no regulation preventing businesses from storing ammonium nitrate in combustible wooden bins and wood buildings without sprinkler systems.”

To help prevent incidents like the West Fertilizer explosion going forward, the CSB recommends that all levels of government take action by not only updating current regulations, but by putting new ones in place for the safe storage and handling procedures for chemicals like AN.