Investigator shares discoveries from West Fertilizer
A fertilizer plant surrounded by homes, schools, and a hospital. A chemical tank that was externally examined but not drained of liquid for a more thorough inspection. These were some of the factors that contributed to two recent environmental disasters that affected thousands of Americans and, in one case, caused 15 deaths and more than 200 injuries.
At a recent presentation at Thompson Coburn’s St. Louis office, Johnnie Banks, the lead federal investigator of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s Washington, D.C., office, talked about the agency’s work investigating both the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion and the Charleston, W.V., chemical spill that tainted the water supply for 300,000 people.
Banks gave the presentation* to the EHS Leaders’ Network, a group of leading environmental, health and safety professionals from companies and institutions from across the Midwest.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency that investigates major chemical accidents, conducts safety studies, and issues recommendations to stakeholders, including the EPA and OSHA.
“We don’t have an enforcement function,” Banks said. “We’re tasked with finding the root causes of an incident. When we put up our tents on a site, we typically start asking, ‘Why, why, why,’ and drill down.
“It’s not just because a worker didn’t pull a switch, for example. Was it a training issue? A personnel issue? We dig deeper and go beyond human error.”
West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion
On April 17, 2013, flames appeared at warehouse of the West Fertilizer Company in the small farming community of West, Texas. About 20 minutes later, a massive explosion occurred, killing 15 people, the majority of them emergency responders. Another 236 people were injured.
“It was a gut punch for the entire township,” Banks said. “The infrastructure of the town was damaged. These people were hurting and still struggle with post-traumatic effects.”
The CSB’s photos of the blast area show the demolished warehouse and the extensive damage caused to 150 nearby homes. In one photo of a playground near the plant, a steel basketball hoop is violently bent in half.
At the time of the explosion, the fertilizer plant held an estimated 50-60 tons of ammonium nitrate, most of it stored in highly combustible wood bins, Banks said. “Ammonium nitrate is not classified as an explosive, but there is a history of incidents,” he said. “It’s pretty unpredictable when it starts to burn.”
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