Texas fertilizer company didn't heed disclosure rules
The fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate - which can also be used in bomb making - unaware of any danger there.
Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren't shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.
A U.S. congressman and several safety experts called into question on Friday whether incomplete disclosure or regulatory gridlock may have contributed to the disaster.
"It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid," Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. "This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up."
Company officials did not return repeated calls seeking comment on its handling of chemicals and reporting practices. Late on Friday, plant owner Donald Adair released a general statement expressing sorrow over the incident but saying West Fertilizer would have little further comment while it cooperated with investigators to try to determine what happened.
"This tragedy will continue to hurt deeply for generations to come," Adair said in the statement.
Failure to report significant volumes of hazardous chemicals at a site can lead the DHS to fine or shut down fertilizer operations, a person familiar with the agency's monitoring regime said. Though the DHS has the authority to carry out spot inspections at facilities, it has a small budget for that and only a "small number" of field auditors, the person said.
Firms are responsible for self reporting the volumes of ammonium nitrate and other volatile chemicals they hold to the DHS, which then helps measure plant risks and devise security and safety plans based on them.
Since the agency never received any so-called top-screen report from West Fertilizer, the facility was not regulated or monitored by the DHS under its CFAT standards, largely designed to prevent sabotage of sites and to keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.
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