The 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, killed 15 people and caused nearly $250 million in damage.
The 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, killed 15 people and caused nearly $250 million in damage.

A massive 2013 fertilizer company explosion that killed 15 people and caused nearly $250 million in damage was likely the result of bad ventilation and poor material storage decisions.

Those are among the key findings of a January report on the deadly incident released by the U.S. Chemical and Safety Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). (Click here to read the full report on the two-year investigation.)

“CSB identified two factors or conditions that likely contributed to the intensity of the fire and detonation: 1) the contamination of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate with materials that served as fuel and 2) the nature of the heat buildup and the ventilation of the fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate storage space,” the report said.

The resulting explosion was devastating, destroying 150 buildings, including two schools, an apartment complex and a nursing home.

Firefighters had difficulty getting the situation under control, according to the report. Not only did the local fire department “not have enough water to effectively fight the fire,” emergency personnel had not been trained how to respond to an emergency involving hazardous materials in general or at the fertilizer company.

To reduce the risks of such explosions in the future, the 267-page report offers a number of suggestions, including:

  • More advance planning in case of emergencies. Agricultural chemical retailers, like fertilizer companies, should develop emergency response plans with local first responders so that firefighters and others are familiar with the property and can respond appropriately if an incident occurs.
  • Safer storage of fertilizer. “Because fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) is unpredictable in fire conditions, the most immediately effective strategy for reducing risk in existing and future FGAN storage facilities is to use inherently safer building design options to avoid creating the hazardous conditions that can contribute to a large uncontrollable FGAN fire and detonation,” the report said. “CSB concluded that the storage of combustible materials near FGAN storage piles and the use of combustible bins likely facilitated the spread of the FGAN-related fire to other bins and nearby combustibles. The combustibles also likely acted as a fuel during the fire; the soot, creosote and other contaminants from the burning wood materials mixed with the surface of the FGAN, potentially increasing its energy and sensitivity to detonation.”
  • Greater liability insurance coverage. At the time of the incident, West Fertilizer Company was only insured for $1 million, which would cover only a fraction of the nearly $250 million in damage caused by the explosion.
  • More regulation of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate by EPA and OSHA to ensure local authorities are informed about potentially hazardous materials in the case of an explosion or other emergency.

What was the industry's reaction to the report and its recommendations? "Mixed," according to the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA), which in 2014 worked with the Fertilizer Institute to establish ResponsibleAG to educate ag retailers and others about safe handling of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate.

"ARA appreciates the hard work and commitment of the CSB to conduct an extensive investigation and develop a comprehensive report, which is dedicated to those who lost their lives in this disaster," the ARA statement said, adding: "Although ARA generally agrees with several of the recommendations, it cannot support a number of other recommendations that are either unsubstantiated conclusions or inappropriate for agricultural retail facilities."

Agricultural retailers remain committed to the safety and security of their employees and the communities where they operate," said Daren Coppock, ARA's president and CEO. "Since the accident, ARA has worked closely with the CSB and other key federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to determine the cause of the detonation and take prudent steps to prevent future accidents."