Chris Connealy may be road weary from hosting 63 meetings in 66 counties that included touring 2,106 ammonium nitrate facilities across Texas in the past two years.
Yet, looking into the faces of the families who lost loved ones in the tragic explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013, has brought perspective for the Texas fire marshal.
Connealy vows: Never again.
“It’s critical volunteer firefighters have access to information, that they take away those lessons and take away those risks,” he told DTN in an interview. “That’s how we honor the great sacrifice of those firefighters and the community. That’s how we pay our respects. Families of the victims want the information shared … I’m hopeful we wouldn’t have the same outcome if there is another West.”
Ten of the 14 people who died at West were volunteer firefighters — most seemed unaware there was little they could do to combat a fire near a relatively large stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the 14-acre West Fertilizer Co. property. A state investigation concluded firefighters would have been better off to walk away from the blaze.
The explosion that destroyed numerous homes, a nursing home and school near the facility occurred when 28 to 34 tons of about 60 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in the warehouse on the West Fertilizer Co. property.
Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he and other lawmakers have been working since that day to keep at the forefront the issues that led to the disaster.
“We were very, very lucky,” he said during an April 7, 2015, hearing before the Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee, testifying on behalf of legislation he authored in response to West.
“There was a whole ammonium nitrate tanker car that hadn’t been put into that bin yet. In another day in the same situation, it could have even been worse than it was,” he said. “My fear is after the second anniversary we will start dwindling its attention, and we will end up back to where we were before — and that’s just kind of lax.”
Two years of legislative inquiry found communities, firefighters, state government officials and emergency management knew very little about the state’s vast ammonium nitrate stockpiles. Volunteer firefighters had little or no training or knowledge of how to handle fires involving ammonium nitrate. There was no system in place to assure facilities storing ammonium nitrate were taking proper precautions.
The Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate have key pieces of legislation currently making their way through the legislature — including two similar bills sitting in the House committee — designed to fix many of the issues coming to light since West. A third identical bill has been authored in the state senate.
Lawmakers aim to improve communication among state agencies, volunteer firefighters and communities about ammonium nitrate stockpiles; give the state fire marshal and volunteer departments across the state authority to conduct facility inspections to gauge ammonium nitrate safety; and provide rulemaking authority to state officials on fire safety at ammonium nitrate facilities.
Since 2013, the Texas State Chemist completed a rule change that requires ammonium nitrate to be stored at least 30 feet away from combustible materials. A federal investigation into the disaster found ammonium nitrate was stored in a wood-framed building near seed — both combustible materials. In fact, most ammonium nitrate stockpiles are stored in wood structures.
The rule change also is part of House Bill 942 authored by Texas Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station. The Pickett and Kacal bills are virtually identical. Pickett’s bill would require the Texas insurance commissioner — in consultation with the state fire marshal — to adopt fire protection standards for ammonium nitrate storage facilities. That would include standards for the storage of ammonium nitrate at those facilities.
Both bills would require ammonium nitrate storage facility owners to allow a fire marshal to enter a facility to “make a thorough examination.” The measures would allow a local fire department access to such a facility to perform a pre-fire planning assessment. A fire marshal would have authority to direct the owner to correct potential hazards within 10 days.
AMMONIUM NITRATE STRUCTURES
In addition to the 30-foot rule, Kacal’s HB 942 also would require fertilizer facilities to store ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate materials in separate structures.
Both bills would require ammonium nitrate facilities to provide Tier II reports to local fire departments that have jurisdiction where those facilities are located. When the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality receives Tier II reports, those would need to be shared with the Texas Fire Marshal and the Texas Division of Emergency Management. The emergency management division would be required to share the report with local emergency planning committees.
A local emergency planning committee, or LEPC, is a voluntary organization established to meet the requirements of the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Facilities that store potentially hazardous chemicals are required to submit Tier II reports on those stockpiles.
The bills also would transfer authority to regulate ammonium nitrate facilities to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by Jan. 1, 2016, away from the state’s department of health and human services.
Jim Farley, owner of Farley Farm Supply in DeLeon, Texas, testified before the Texas House Environmental committee April 7 in favor of the Kacal legislation and against the Pickett bill that would allow the state to regulate ammonium nitrate facilities. Farley said he believes facility owners already are taking steps to safeguard stockpiles without a state mandate.
Farley said his business has stored ammonium nitrate for at least 35 years. Since the West incident, he made more changes to how he stores ammonium nitrate than he did in the previous 36 years combined, he said.
Farley’s company cleared a portion of a building just for ammonium nitrate, recently hired a consultant to help meet Tier II reporting requirements and has focused on doing a better job training employees on how to handle ammonium nitrate. If the Pickett bill becomes law and facilities across the state are required to make changes, Farley said it could derail his company’s efforts.
“We haven’t had an incident in 38 years,” he said. “It would cost me about $1 million to put in a dry fertilizer facility. The problem is, I might put in a facility and in three to five years the regulations might change.”
Though he understands how some businesses oppose giving government authority to establish regulations, Pickett said state lawmakers already have shown restraint while addressing the issues.
“It will be a matter of time that if we don’t do something, we’ll have another West explosion,” he said.
Connealy told DTN the cause of the fire remains undetermined. His office continues to work with experts at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The cause has been narrowed to 3 possible things: the fire was set intentionally, an electrical problem occurred, or a faulty golf cart somehow ignited the blaze.
Based on legislative hearings in the past two years, Connealy said there is a chance the state may provide additional dollars to train volunteer firefighters on how to safely handle future fires near ammonium nitrate stockpiles.
In 2001, the state legislature established the Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program. In 2013, the legislature set the amount of assessment for the program to be the lesser of $30 million or the total amount appropriated from the state’s general fund. The program is funded by an annual assessment on property and casualty insurers authorized to do business in Texas.
“Firefighter safety is a huge issue,” Connealy said.
“We’re going to continue to learn the lessons from West. I’m adamant that we learn lessons to reduce the risk.”