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Chemical Facilities Tackle an Explosive Problem

Ammonium nitrate, a key component of fertilizer, is a relatively stable compound. When heated, it typically decomposes into two common and widely used gases: laughing gas and water vapor. But when large quantities of ammonium nitrate are confined and exposed to great heat, the results can be explosive.

That’s precisely what occurred when a wooden warehouse at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, caught fire on April 17, 2013, causing approximately 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside to explode. The eruption killed 15 people and injured more than 200. After investigating the incident, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ (ATF) National Response Team ruled the cause of the fire that set off the explosion “undetermined,” but also discovered that there was no working sprinkler system in place that could have helped contain the fire at the factory. After additional inquiry, investigators also learned that the factory hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985.

The West explosion was not an isolated incident. While they might not have received equal media attention, multiple other chemical facilities have exploded since April 2013. For example, 73 people were injured when the Williams Olefins chemical plant in Geismar, Louisiana, went up in flames in June. A blaze caused methanol tanks to explode at a Danlin plant in Thomas, Oklahoma, in September. A Hydrodec North America LLC plant in Canton, Ohio, erupted in November, causing $12.5 million in damage.

The disasters have sparked federal action. President Barack Obama issued an executive order establishing the Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, which is designed to improve coordination among stakeholders and review current regulations and standards for the handling, storage, and transportation of hazardous chemicals with representatives from the Departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture, Justice, Labor, and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Chemicals and the facilities that manufacture, store, distribute, and use them are essential to our economy,” a statement from the White House Press Secretary’s Office said after the executive order was issued. “However, incidents such as the devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, in April are tragic reminders that the handling and storage of chemicals present serious risks that must be addressed.”

Members of the federal working group listened to stakeholders present their views over the last few months on whether new regulations are needed to improve chemical facility safety and security in light of the explosion. The group determined that ammonium nitrate must be handled more safely and that interagency communications must be improved. Suggestions included developing a database to share risk information and investigating safer alternatives to current chemicals.

Ammonium Nitrate

The executive order expressly calls for the working group to examine how ammonium nitrate is handled and for the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Agriculture to “develop a list of potential regulatory and legislative proposals to improve the safe and secure storage, handling, and sale of ammonium nitrate and identify ways in which ammonium nitrate safety and security can be enhanced under existing authorities.”

Millions of tons of ammonium nitrate are produced each year in the United States and are used for fertilizer and other chemicals, including nitrous oxide. It is also used to produce explosives, and to make blasting agents. The list the secretaries compiled has not been made available to the public yet, but the EPA, OSHA, and the ATF released a chemical advisory about the safe storage, handling, and management of the chemical in August of 2013, using previous incidents, including the West, Texas, disaster, to make initial recommendations about the use of the chemical.

The working group noted that, when ammonium nitrate isn’t properly stored, it can have devastating effects like those seen in September 2001 in France. At the Azote de France fertilizer factory in Toulouse, 200 to 300 tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored in bulk in a hangar exploded, killing 30 people, causing 2,500 injuries, and heavily damaging 10,000 buildings. The exact cause of the explosion is unknown, but it is believed to have been the result of storage with incompatible material.

“Pure ammonium nitrate is stable and will explode only under extraordinary circumstances,” the advisory said. “However, the addition of combustible materials, such as sugar, grain dust, seed husks, or other organic containments, even in fairly low percentages, creates a dangerous combination and the ammonium nitrate mixture becomes far more susceptible to detonation,” warned the advisory.

In the case of the West explosion, the warehouse was filled with seeds that fed the fire and may have aided its spread. “Not only were the warehouse and bins combustible, but the building also contained significant amounts of combustible seeds, which likely contributed to the intensity of the fire,” according to the findings of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigated the disaster alongside several other federal agencies.

The advisory board noted that ammonium nitrate is particularly dangerous because it is its own oxidizer, meaning “it provides its own oxygen and once combustion begins, it cannot be smothered,” according to the advisory. “Moreover, the combination of heat and confinement will accelerate combustion, perhaps to the point of detonation.”

Because of this, the advisory recommends storage and process conditions to avoid, including avoiding heating ammonium nitrate in a confined space, ensuring that it’s not exposed to strong shock waves from explosives, avoiding contamination with combustible materials or organic substances, avoiding contamination with some metals—aluminum powder, chromium, copper, cobalt, and nickel—and chlorides, and keeping molten or solid ammonium nitrate out of confined spaces, such as sewers or drains. 

However, many of the safety provisions targeted towards safe storage of ammonium nitrate are “confusing or contradictory even to code experts,” according to a statement by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Also, current regulations allow ammonium nitrate to be stored in wooden buildings and in wooden bins and don't require sprinkler systems unless there are more than 2,500 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored in that location. That amount is significantly more then what caused the West, Texas, incident. Furthermore, the standard “contains a ‘grandfathering’ provision that allows existing buildings that were constructed prior to code adoption—and fail to meet all of its provisions—to continue in use,” according to the board.

Supplemental material, like the advisory and recommendations from the board, is being taken into account along with stakeholder viewpoints to create new regulations to make ammonium nitrate storage, production, and handling safer as part of the working group’s efforts.

Interagency Communication

In addition to examining ammonium nitrate, the working group conducted listening sessions across the country, including those at the General Services Administration building in Washington, D.C., in November and January, allowing stakeholders ranging from members of the public to private industry representatives to speak directly to members of the group about their concerns for five minutes each. Stakeholders were also allowed to submit statements and comments to the working group electronically.

Mathy Stanislaus, working group cochair and assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response of the EPA, said that the agency is already working on drafting a request for more information on risk management programs for chemical plant safety. “We’re also looking at explosives, strengthening and clarifying existing requirements, and looking at various other options to improve generally the safety of chemical plants,” Stanislaus said.

Those goals fall into line with the executive order, which calls for the working group to develop a “plan to support and further enable efforts by state regulators; state, local, and tribal emergency responders; chemical facility owners and operators; and local and tribal communities to work together to improve chemical facility safety and security.”

One change that many speakers asked the working group to make is to increase availability of information to first responders and local fire departments about the types of chemicals being stored at facilities, the location of those chemicals, and training procedures for emergency situations. Regulations already exist granting access to some of this information for first responders, but that information isn’t always adequate and some departments lack the training needed to be able to respond in an emergency.

Lee Anderson, senior legislative and policy advocate for the Blue Green Alliance, which represents labor unions and environmental organizations, recommended in his five minutes that the government create a public database that would allow private citizens to look up information about hazardous chemicals in their community. By making information—such as the types of chemicals at facilities, dates of inspections, and violations of regulations—available to the public, it could prevent facilities from following West Fertilizer’s example and “falling through the cracks,” according to Anderson.

The data could also inform the individuals living in the community, Anderson explained. “Those folks who are in the farming community know exactly where the ammonium nitrate is and exactly how it is stored, but those folks who live in town who do not farm for a living, but live very close to that facility, don’t even know what ammonium nitrate is,” he said.

The creation of a database could fall into line with the executive order, which has charged the working group with developing an enhanced information collection and sharing system to help agencies support “more informed decision-making, streamline reporting requirements, and reduce duplicative efforts.” But some speakers at the listening group sessions expressed concern that if information about hazardous chemicals were made available to the general public, it could fall into the wrong hands and potentially make facilities a target for terrorist attacks.

Technical Database

If a public database is too dangerous, Jay Brabson, an environmental engineer for the State of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, suggested creating a database for industry only to help new employees learn safety procedures and gain background knowledge from industry peers.

“Maybe a central technical center, or database, where technical information can be asked for and freely given concerning potential risks should be considered,” Brabson said. “Process safety questions should be encouraged from all sources and shared with nominal or no fees. It should not be considered a competitive advantage to have competing refineries or chemical processors blow up—that is a mark against the whole industry, not just the competitor.”

The working group is also evaluating best practices and methods for interagency collaboration through a pilot program in the New York and New Jersey region: the Effective Chemical Risk Management Project, Federal Region Two. Through the pilot program—the details of which are not yet public—the working group is developing an understanding of the risks in the region and ensuring that local responders have access to key information.

The pilot is looking at improving coordination of inspections through a shared inspection schedule, cross-training of inspectors, and “inter-agency referrals of possible regulatory noncompliance as it begins development of a unified federal approach for identifying and responding to risks in chemical facilities,” according to program documents.

Thus far, the pilot has identified a need for better engagement of facilities in the local planning process, additional training for first responders, more support for State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) and Local Emergency Planning Commissions (LEPCs), and improved data management and sharing.

Alongside the working group’s efforts, ATF and DHS are also considering sharing information with stakeholders through changes to their agencies’ policies. ATF is considering sharing explosive licensing data with vetted members of the SERCs who have explosives storage in their jurisdiction. “ATF is also working to update regulations to require any person who stores explosive material to notify local fire officials on an annual basis,” according to a working group progress report, to help first responders develop emergency response plans to handle the explosives as safely as possible should a disaster occur.

In addition, DHS is considering sharing certain Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) data with vetted members of the SERCs, LEPCs, and Tribal Emergency Planning Committees (TEPCs). Currently, that information is available only to personnel in federal agencies, state and local government, and state fusion centers.

The working group is also looking at methods that state and federal agencies can use to identify chemical facilities that haven’t met their regulatory obligations or are not in compliance with safety and security requirements. It plans to use these findings to increase “federal efficiency and decrease the burden to those required to submit information by creating a single data input point for regulated or potentially regulated chemical facilities, so that data provided by a facility can be provided once and used by all relevant federal agencies,” according to a progress report on the working group.

This will help federal agencies keep track of inspection information, potentially make complying with regulations easier for companies, and prevent future discrepancies in inspections, such as the lack of inspections at the West Fertilizer Company from the 1980s through the time of the explosion.

Using information from the pilot program and listening sessions, the working group plans to create a standard operating procedure for a unified federal approach with state, local, and tribal assets to identify and respond to risks to chemical facilities.

Safer Alternatives 

Christina Morgan, recommendations specialist for the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, asked that the working group examine the potential benefits of alternative regulatory regimes for improving chemical facility safety at high-hazard facilities. She suggested a safety case regime, which would require “high-hazard facilities to demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the regulator, that they can operate safely and in conformance with the latest industry standards and achieve the lowest practical risk levels,” Morgan said. “This approach provides industry the opportunity to tailor regulations to its specific facilities with the goal of continuous risk reduction and major accident prevention.”

Also, the suggested safety case regime requires industry to evolve with current best safety practices, “eliminating the need for the regulator to constantly revise and update regulations, to keep them current and relevant,” but is dependent on a “well-funded and competent regulator,” she explained.

Another task of the working group is to identify safer alternatives, sometimes called inherently safer technology (IST), for storage and production of potentially harmful chemicals. Many participants in the listening sessions expressed concerns that this would lead to more government regulation and less freedom in the market for companies to choose what practices were best for them.

Richard Gupton, senior vice president of public policy and counsel for the Agricultural Retailers Association, said his organization opposes any regulations or statutes for IST because it’s unclear who would define processes as safer. “There’s no real set definitions to decide those types of things,” he explained. “There’s risks in life…and we don’t think that the government should decide what products that facility should carry.”

However, Jim Brinkley, director of the International Association of Fire Fighters, strongly disagreed with Gupton, arguing that only by forcing the industry to adopt safer handling and storage of dangerous chemicals through regulation would it actually change. He used the example of how the federal government began requiring automobile manufacturers to put seatbelts in all vehicles in the United States in 1968, forcing them to make their product safer, which led to fewer fatalities. Brinkley said the same needs to be done to impel companies that handle, store, and produce hazardous chemicals to keep workers and neighboring communities safe by using safer methods.

Morgan echoed Brinkley’s statements and urged OSHA and the EPA to look at modernizing existing regulations to incorporate inherently safer approaches to chemical hazard management. This could be done by “substituting one material with another that is less hazardous, minimizing the amount of hazardous material being used, moderating process conditions by lowering pressures and temperatures, and designing process to be less complicated, and therefore less prone to failure,” she said.

“Some in industry have opposed mandatory IST programs because retrofits and processes can be expensive to implement,” she added. “However, the financial and human costs of chemical explosions and fires—and the costs of preparing a community for the worst case—need to be part of any decision process.”

Members of the working group were pleased with the feedback, and Stanislaus said the point of the initial listening sessions was to allow people to air their opinions and disagree with one another in an effort to improve chemical safety and security.

The working group has met all deadlines in the executive order, despite delays from the government shutdown in October 2013. It released a list of “Options for Improved Chemical Facility Safety and Security” for stakeholders to consider in January 2014 that were compiled from discussions at previous listening sessions held across the country. The working group is holding additional listening sessions to hear opinions and concerns about the list of options before making final recommendations to the White House.