West explosion investigation finds lack of protection
The CSB’s investigation determined that lessons learned during emergency responses to AN incidents – in which firefighters perished -- have not been effectively disseminated to firefighters and emergency responders in other communities where AN is stored and utilized.
The CSB has found that on April 17, 2013, West volunteer firefighters were not aware of the explosion hazard from the AN stored at West Fertilizer and were caught in harm’s way when the blast occurred.
Investigators note that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends that firefighters evacuate from AN fires of “massive and uncontrollable proportions.” Federal DOT guidance contained in the Emergency Response Guidebook, which is widely used by firefighters, suggests fighting even large ammonium nitrate fertilizer fires by “flood[ing] the area with water from a distance.” However, the investigation has found, the response guidance appears to be vague since terms such as “massive,” “uncontrollable,” “large,” and “distance” are not clearly defined.
Investigator Banks said, “All of these provisions should be reviewed and harmonized in light of the West disaster to ensure that firefighters are adequately protected and are not put into danger protecting property alone.”
The CSB has previously noted that while U.S. standards for ammonium nitrate have apparently remained static for decades, other countries have more rigorous standards covering both storage and siting of nearby buildings. For example, the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive states in
guidance dating to 1996 that “ammonium nitrate should normally be stored in single story, dedicated, well-ventilated buildings that are constructed from materials that will not burn, such as concrete, bricks or steel.” The U.K. guidance calls for storage bays “constructed of a material that does not burn, preferably concrete.”
At the county level, McLennan County’s local emergency planning committee did not have an emergency response plan for West Fertilizer as it might have done under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. The community clearly was not aware of the potential hazard at West Fertilizer.
Chairperson Moure-Eraso commended recent action by the Fertilizer Institute in establishing an auditing and outreach program for fertilizer retailers called ResponsibleAg, and for disseminating with the Agricultural Retailers Association a document called “Safety and Security Guidelines for the Storage and Transportation of Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate at Fertilizer Retail Facilities.” It also contains recommendations for first responders in the event of a fire.
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