In the interests of Calamity Fairness, here’s a most depressing Bloomberg article:
Texas Explosion Seen as Sign of Weak U.S. Oversight
The Texas plant that was the scene of a deadly explosion this week was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1985. The risk plan it filed with regulators listed no flammable chemicals. And it was cleared to hold many times the ammonium nitrate that was used in the Oklahoma City bombing.
For worker- and chemical-safety advocates who have been pushing the U.S. government to crack down on facilities that make or store large quantities of hazardous chemicals, the blast in West, Texas, was a grim reminder of the risks these plants pose. And they say regulators haven’t done enough to tackle the problem.
“Definitely, somewhere along the line at the federal level, there was a failure,” Sean Moulton, director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington-based watchdog, said in an interview. “It was quite clear that they just didn’t consider flammability or explosiveness to be a problem, and given what occurred that was clearly shortsighted.”
The April 17 fire and explosion at Adair Grain Inc.’s West Fertilizer Co. plant flattened houses and devastated the center of the town of West, about 80 miles south of Dallas. Search crews had recovered 12 bodies as of noon today and 200 people were reported injured, making it the worst U.S. industrial disaster in three years. U.S. Senator John Cornyn said 60 people remain unaccounted for.
Cornyn said today he’s “confident” the blast will lead to a review of the government’s chemical plant safety rules….
The West fertilizer plant had only about seven employees, and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA,” Peg Seminario, safety and health director of the labor federation, said in an interview. “What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.”
Since the Bhopal chemical release in India in 1984 that killed thousands of people, environmental groups, unions and safety groups have been pushing the U.S. to tighten federal oversight of chemical production and storage facilities. While they pressed for such proposals after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, legislation they advocated never passed Congress. The EPA considered regulations but dropped that idea under President George W. Bush’s administration….
On July 25 about 50 groups sent a petition to the agency asking it to invoke a provision of the Clean Air Act to implement rules mandating the use of non-hazardous chemicals, or changes in processes at those plants to reduce the risks, such as lowering concentrations or changing temperatures.
The petition was signed by groups such as the United Steelworkers, Sierra Club (FSUSX), Greenpeace and Air Alliance Houston…
Since receiving the petition, EPA hasn’t responded and it faces no deadline to do so…
Speaking of marathons, the emergent Boston “crime spree” has temporarily sucked up all the media attention, but as they finish digging out the bodies and tallying all the “minor” bad decisions that led to a major disaster, there will be — I hope — a lot of investigative journalism to be committed. From what I’ve seen so far, the plant had been running with newsmaking incident for fifty years, there were only a handful of employees, zoning laws in Texas are even more forgiving than their environmental standards, and besides, Free Market…
Zoning and oversight are communism.
Nice. Cole’s post was only up for about 90 seconds.
Reports are in that the suspect is pinned down in Watertown.
Pinned down in a boat. Shots exchanged. Don’t know if dead or alive.
I’m going to guess that the Texas disaster is proof that government oversight has failed, and should therefore be cut.
@Thoughtcrime: Wonder if it’s not the suspect, but someone else or something else in the boat.
Gotta love that Gov. Goodhair ran straight to the Feds for assistance. Where is your pride, man? Now is the time to show your independence from the nanny state!
@hildebrand: Of course he did. He’s a real Merikan! He EARNED that money that the Feds soak up! But teh poors in my state? Fuck em.
ID confirmed by authorities…I know…I know…..
Hiding in boat in driveway under tarp. Over 200 rounds fired audio on TV amazing.
TAC unit going in.
Appears wounded but alive…moving.
The hypocrisy of John Cornyn talking about “a review of government safety rules” is sickening. As if John Cornyn hasn’t devoted the bulk of his public life to the principle that all government regulations are per se bad for America. As if the Party to which he belongs isn’t committed to the idea that the death and destruction of innocent civilians isn’t a perfectly acceptable price to pay for a profitable business sector.
Unless he’s got Aquaman as an accomplice, this nightmare will be over soon.
two explosions. two body counts. One, people scramble to find ways to prevent it from happening again even though there really isn’t much that can be done from preventing disturbed individuals from doing bad things. Other explosion killed more people but hardly anyone is talking about why safety regulations which could have easily prevented the accident weren’t in place.
Second problem can easily be solved with relatively simple regulation and enforcement. The first, not so much. But the Boston bombing will get all the oxygen because…muslims, baby.
Official source now says body not moving.
Forget it, Jake…it’s Watertown.
@magurakurin: The “Muslim” aspect is only one factor driving the difference in coverage. More important is that the Boston event could potentially happen anywhere, randomly, even in “good” areas with lots of wealthy people. Events like the West disaster usually happen at fixed facilities located in areas where wealthy people don’t live. They are also something people tend to accept as part of modern life, like auto accidents.
I was stunned when the report came out that the plant claimed an ammonia leak would be no big deal, only a 10 minute release with no threat to life or health. We have a 1000 gal ammonia tank on our site. Prior to our plant adopting a new chemical process a few years ago which requires a highly toxic reagent, the release of that tank was viewed as our “worst case” in terms of a potential chemical release. Our contingency plan called for a 1 mile exclusion zone, extending to 5 miles downwind. Those fuckers allegedly had 59k pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site, and they claimed it was no big deal? That’s criminal malfeasance not only on the part of the plant, but of the government inspectors who received that safety statement (assuming they accurately reported the quantities involved).
Completely agree with that point. And to be honest, auto accidents is my pet cause. I really get pissed at speeders and people talking on their phones, etc. Probably nothing causes more needless deaths of innocents than dangerous driving. But as you say, it is just accepted. If you suggest that the police should say, abandon the war on drugs, and just go hell bent for leather on speeders…a sort of zero tolerance on speed…people would just roll their eyes.
there is no excuse…..none whatsoever….3rd comment on the dallas morning news article was ‘i guess Texas City never happened?”
iow all this has happened before, and will happen again, until people start, finally obeying santayana’s law….
Please remember that the Reagan administration cut the budget of OSHA and the EPA inspectorate, and they have never really recovered from these cuts. In a real sense, a portion of this blood is on Ronald’s hands.
Just based on the reported 15 deaths, before we find out what happened to the unaccounted for 60, the Texas explosion is much deadlier, more predictable, and most probably more preventable.
But furriners and gun battles make for gripping TV. Corporate malfeasance abetted by lax enforcement (which itself probably relates to excess corporate influence) tends to lead to boring reports and dead efforts to legislate.
@magurakurin – The Boston events happened in the center of a major America metropolis, on one of the most news-worthy days on their calendar. The press was already there, and is very familiar with Boston; heck, I bet a good fraction of the major press went to school there (or in Cambridge). Of course it was going to get covered up the wazoo,
Meanwhile, we have West, Texas, which isn’t even in West Texas. I had never heard of it even though I have been to Waco (and like Czech food). The words “back of beyond” come to mind.
The difference in coverage is unjust, but it is not surprising.
Random J. Nerd
Texas thinks zoning regulations are communist heresies.
The site was storing 27 tons of anhydrous ammonia, and *270* tons of ammonium nitrate. By comparison, the Murrah building was done in by about 1% of that amount of ammonium nitrate. Oh yea, if you are making ammonium nitrate from anhydrous ammonia, you have a tank full of fuming nitric acid someplace nearby. (but I haven’t seen a reported number for how much they had sitting around)
There is a middle school directly across the road. There was a nursing home 500 feet away. The high school was 1,000 feet away. The fire code says for 50,000 lbs of explosive (and they had 5x that much) says nearest structure needs to be 1,500 feet away if you surround things with barriers (typically earthen berms), 2,000 feet if its level ground.
Now as I remember Texas prides itself on just how big it is. Looking at the map you have this dense little town, in the middle of a whole lot of nothing. What you are supposed to do is look in the official table for such thing, and look up its rule for distance based on the amount of stuff you are planning to pile up. That’s how long you make the driveway. You run cattle or grow feed in your buffer zone (might get you some agricultural subsidy $$). You don’t build schools, hospitals, etc.
So you have enough explosive on site that you have to keep some outside. What do your employee’s do? Well back in Feb, the middle school got to do a “this is not a drill” evacuation, someone spotted fire on the site. Accidental ignition? Attempted arson? Nope, they had a pile of wood pallets, and some brush to dispose of. Method of choice? Pile it up and have an open bonfire.
At least the middle school won’t have to worry about its too close siting, it doesn’t exist anymore (both the site, and the school).
For entertainment value, look up the MSDS for Anhydrous Ammonia. Anhydrous means “without water” By comparison, that bottle sitting under the sink is 98% water. If you were to encounter a cloud of the high grade stuff, you wouldn’t smell it for long. It would destroy your nasal mucous at your first breath. You wouldn’t have to worry about a second breath, your lungs would cease to exist shortly after your nasal passages.
Now there is some debate as to just how flammable ammonia is. (its not a matter of debate with the ammonium nitrate, that stuff burns with enthusiasm). There is some risk that if you heat the stuff hot enough it will separate into its component hydrogen and nitrogen, which will explode when the safety vent sends it into the atmosphere.
But it doesn’t have to disassociate, or even hit the right ratio so that it will burn (if slowly) The magic acronym is BLEVE. Heat it well above its atmospheric pressure boiling point, in a sealed space, then vent it. The liquid will flash to vapor instantly during the pressure drop. It will increase greatly in volume when it does so. The result is indistinguishable from the shock wave from a detonation.
(its exactly this effect that makes steam boiler explosions so energetic. In the case of water, the vapor will take up almost 1,500 times the volume of the liquid water.)
I work for a chemical company here in Canada. I am the Engineer who is responsible for all feedstock and product storage on the site and the pipelines that run to and from them.
Every five years we are required to do a thorough risk assessment of every area of the plant. My area is large enough that it gets broken up and I do one area a year. These reviews involve four people and take about two weeks to do. We also have inspections completed by our Insurers every other year, along with other monthly inspections by our own personnel, not to mention daily [24/7]inspections by the people in the area.
It is almost incomprehensible to me that anyone with the tiniest shred of knowledge of chemicals and fertilizer plants could say that there was no potential for a chemical fire and explosion at that plant.
If that is what was submitted to OSHA or an Insurer and someone read that, the plant should have been immediately audited and shutdown due to lack of competent personnel operating the plant.
Once again the conservative motto is quickly invoked, “Who could have known?”
This event is also a shame and embarrassment for the entire chemical industry. I don’t know who supplied them with their ammonia, but we audit all our customers and suppliers and if we feel they are not competent or do not have proper facilities/procedures/safeguards in place, we will not sell to them. Period. That is part of the Responsible Care program which almost all the large and mid sized chemical companies belong to. At least up here in Sarnia, Ontario.
After Imperial – Dixie Crystal sugar killed 13 and injured 42 in 2008 in a terrifying sugar dust explosion; Congress critters hooted and hollered that justice will be done. They submitted bills to ramp up OSHA dust hazard analysis in core dust hazard industries. OSHA was working to produce a unified dust standard as there are over half a dozen National Fire Protection Ass. standards covering dust protection that are all over the map.
To date, no bills have been passed to regulate the exposure, and no standards have been unified by OSHA. On its own OSHA has been enforcing a dust emphasis program where they can cite from standards outside of its own weak ones, but since there are so few qualified inspectors the chance of a qualified on site dust hazard analysis is remote.
I believe we will see the same results as a result of the West, TX disaster. At least we got all those safety improvements to undersea oil drilling after the BP gulf disaster…
Sorry I missed this last night. Since most of it is an edited version of a Bloomberg article, my criticism will be aimed there. But clearly, by reading the opening paragraph, Ms. Laurie could have rcognized something was amiss.
“The Texas plant that was the scene of a deadly explosion this week was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1985.”
Mind you, we don’t know the cause of the fire. But based on this comment, which is quite common in coverage of this disaster, it would be helpful to ask the following? What level of fire safety inspections are contained in OSHA inspections? How often do such inspections reveal fire hazards in fertilizer retail outlets such as this which are then remediated? Often? Never? Without knowing that, does it matter when the last inspection was held?
“The risk plan it filed with regulators listed no flammable chemicals, And it was cleared to hold many times the ammonium nitrate that was used in the Oklahoma City bombing.”
Well, who cleared it to hold ammonium nitrate in an amount known to the reporters if it listed no flammable chemicals? Could that be because the risk plan cited in this and many other misleading press reports does not cover ammonium nitrate? It is a report to EPA on materials likely to be emitted into the air in the course of facility operation, and thus no similar facility in the country lists ammonium nitrate in this particular report. The chemical is listed in a sepearate report to state health officials.
“Zoning laws in Texas are even more forgiving than their environmental standards” Ms. Laurie tells us. The database I linked above listed hundreds of facilities similar to West Chemical in towns across the country. Just search under facilities with the word “fertilizer” in the name.
I would bet if you Google mapped any of them you would find
many, if not most, of them in a mixed land use environment similar to the one found in West.
The tragedy in West may lead to efforts to strenghten regulations. I will place a second bet that the result will not be the relocation of the hundreds of existing facilities or homes located within their potential blast zones, but it will lead to the fattening of lobbyist wallets and an increase in insurance premiums.
Random J. Nerd
@hildebrand: Add the disaster relief as a rider to the gun sales background bill, and give congress its chance to vote again.
Random J. Nerd
@ricky: Never mind EPA and OSHA – they had 1,350 times the amount of nitrate needed to require them to report to DHS, including record keeping on sales.
It does somewhat confirm my usual addition of “theater” to DHS, as an official (presumably off the record) said “We had no idea it was there”. Half a million pounds of explosive, sitting alongside 50,000 pounds of a toxic and corrosive liquid, and you had no idea that it was sitting there.
@Random J. Nerd:
Yes, the lack of a plan filed with DHS to keep the ammonium nitrate safe from or out of terrorist hands is the latest “regulatory failure “discovered by the press. And of course the lack of such a plan is clearly what caused this terrible explosion. I can’t keep track of the deaths which have occurred from fertilizer dealerships exploding due to pre-9/11 thinking and regulation.