West explosion investigation results are in

Firefighters check a destroyed apartment complex near the fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, in this photo made early Thursday, April 18, 2013. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has concluded that the fatal 2013 West Fertilizer Co. explosion could have been prevented. Board officials presented the findings from its three-year investigation at a press conference and public meeting Thursday at the Hilton Waco.

In the explosion located just 8 miles north of Waco, 15 people were killed, 260 people were injured, and more than 150 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Of the 15 people who were fatally injured 12 were emergency responders and three were members of the public. West continues to rebuild almost three years later.

The cause of ignition was not found in the investigation and neither was the start location of the fire. It was found that it took approximately 14 minutes for the explosion to occur. The fire began at 7:29 p.m. the night of April 17, 2013 ,and at 7:45 p.m. an opening was created by collapsing debris that let oxygen into the building. The oxygen fueled the fire, which made it hotter and heated the soot that covered the fertilizer. This is what caused the fertilizer to explode that night.

The Chemical Safety Board also found that all levels of government failed to keep buildings, homes, schools and hospitals from being built near the plant. They also presented that they found 1,300 other facilities nationwide that store ammonium nitrate.

The Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents. The news conference on the final report was led by Vanessa Sutherland, chairperson and member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, and Johnnie Banks, supervisory investigator. The report is a culmination of three years of work by an 11 member team.

“The CSB has investigated too many violent detonations,” Sutherland said, “and runaway reactions like the one at West — though West was the most devastating of all.”

The building was built in 1961 in open fields and was built mostly of wood and combustible materials. The fertilizer was stored in wooden bins as well. There is no federal regulation that keeps facilities from storing fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate in wood bins in buildings made of combustible materials without sprinkler systems.

“There is no doubt that West is not alone,” Banks said, “and that other communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity to populated areas.”

Citizens can find out what proximity they live to a hazardous chemical plant, but they cannot find out exactly where that plant is, or what the plant’s name is.

Several insurers that inspected the West Fertilizer facility, both liability and property, did not focus on the fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate hazards in their inspections.

“One of the things that came out of this investigation was that when West Fertilizer submitted their tier two to McLennan county the fact that they store fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate was not properly recognized,” said Lucy Tyler, investigaton, “and as a result of that there were changes made in the monitoring and collection of tier two reports.”

Fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate is not a chemical covered in the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of chemicals that require operators to adopt safety management systems for handling of the chemicals. Fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate is a stable chemical under normal conditions, but when it is heated, it becomes highly explosive.

The company had 40-60 tons of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate. The insurance- related losses were estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.

The investigative team presented their results relating to the key issues of the West explosion being regulatory oversight, hazard awareness, emergency planning and response, fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate storage practices and land use planning and zoning.

After the formal presentation, there was a time allowed for public commentary on the proposed recommendations. Several audience members voiced their concerns about the gaps and flaws they saw in the investigation.

“I think they did a great job investigating and everything, but I think the work starts tomorrow.,” Phil Calvin, a volunteer firefighter for the Navarro Mills Fire Department said. “There are more recommendations to be made.”

The Chemical Safety Board created a proposal for the board with recommendations on how to prevent future incidents such as the one in West. The proposal was voted at a public gathering at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Hilton Waco. The board unanimously passed the proposed recommendations.

“The recommendations are geared to address the shortfalls we have discovered in the regulatory area and also in the areas of emergency planning and emergency response,” Johnnie Banks, Supervisory Investigator said. “The point of these recommendations are prevention, and by sharing these recommendations as broadly as possible, hopefully other facilities carrying fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate story facilities would consider the construction of their storage.