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That is because the EPA and OSHA only regulate anhydrous ammonia as a hazardous substance under the Risk Management Program (RMP) and Process Safety Management (PSM) respectively. West Fertilzer Co. made the proper submittals for anhydrous ammonia. To my knowledge, these agencies do not regulate ammonium nitrate. These are the only two Federal agencies that regulate onsite safety of hazardous chemicals.  DHS regulates ammonium nitrate, but that agency is only concerned about site security in case of terrorism. DHS would not be reviewing safe handling and storage of ammonium nitrate onsite. I will not be surprised if the West Fertilizer Co. issues a press release at some point indicating that it was in full compliance with all applicable health, safety, and environmental rules. Unfortunately, that statement may not be as incorrect as many of us would like to believe.

There really is little doubt what caused the explosion once you understand the properties of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate becomes explosive at 400 F, long before anhydrous ammonia would even ignite (1,200 F).

Ammonium nitrate may be the more likely candidate in the explosion.

In small quantities, the white pellets won't detonate, notes Ronald Willey, a chemical engineering professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Many drugstore cold packs use the compound because, when water is also put in the packs, the mixture absorbs heat from its surroundings.

But the compound begins to decompose into nitrous oxide and water when heated to temperatures above 150 degrees F. – a process that itself releases heat. If temperatures rise to about 400 degrees F. or higher, as in a fire, decomposition can become explosive.

Ammonium nitrate mixed with diesel fuel is what was used in the OKC bombing. After the OKC bombing, there was a big push to regulate ammonium nitrate.  Lobbyists pushed back and the only agency that took any action almost a decade later was DHS, an agency that was not even in existence at the time of the OKC bombing.

Both chemicals should be regulated by EPA and OSHA.  One or both agencies may take action following this incident, but ammonium nitrate was already responsible for the largest industrial accident in US history (also in Texas).  The RMP and PSM programs are very successful.  Each requires training of onsite personnel in the safe handling of the chemicals and coordination/training of first responders in addition to many other requirements.
Industry has proven once again that the only way to force them to do anything is through regulation.

Lack of regulation allowed the company to avoid spending money on upgrades that could have prevented or limited the damage and loss of life. It has already been reported that the facility did not have any blast walls.  It also did not have any fire sprinkers.

Texas officials are indicating that more environmental regulations would not prevent an explosion.

Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said he did not believe that more environmental regulations would have prevented the blast.
He is wrong, but do not expect Gov. Perry to do anything about it.
Perry told The Associated Press that he remains comfortable with the state's level of oversight after last week's huge explosion in West, which killed 14 people, injured at least 200, destroyed an apartment complex and about 50 houses, and damaged a nursing home and a school.
I see articles like this one published in the Nation  quoting EPA experts who are getting the regulations and criminal liability wrong.
Beyond the lack of full coverage on cable TV and the national press, Kaufman cites what he calls two glaring errors. He points to The New York Times article of April 19 which, he says, “falsely claimed that the company notified EPA that they had on hand 270 tons of the explosive ammonium nitrate. They did not. The company also falsely certified to EPA that there was no fire or explosive risk.”

Kaufman points to the document—published on the MSNBC site—that the company sent to the State of Texas, which certified that the facility stored 270 tons of the explosive ammonium nitrate, “thus proving,” in Kaufman’s words, “their self-certification to EPA violated the criminal requirements of 18 USC 1001.” The section of criminal code, he explains, “requires people, and companies, to provide truthful information to the government. It’s a felony to knowingly lie about material information.” If those numbers were sent to EPA, the feds (as we’ll see below) might have done something about it, but the company likely knew that Texas would not or could not act.

As for Reuters: Its April 20 report drew wide linkage (from me, too) for its opener on that explosive material—being 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger DHS oversight—but further down it cited an unnamed “expert” stating that neither OSHA nor the EPA “regulate the handling or storage of ammonium nitrate. That task falls largely to the DHS and the local and state agencies that oversee emergency planning and response.”

In fact, Kaufman, points out, EPA fined the company in 2006 (OSHA had done that as far back as 1985). So the company sending wrong information to EPA really mattered.

We cannot expect the media to correctly report on something when there is broad disagreement among 'experts'. Unfortunately, many of the individuals discussing this issue do not have direct experience with the relevant programs. Mr. Kaufman is careful in his wording, he never actually says that the company was required to report the amount of ammonium nitrate onsite to EPA.  Unfortunately, he is adding to the misinformation.  If ammonium nitrate is regulated by EPA, then point it out in the RMP hazardous substance list or share a regulation.

Here are the facts:

If EPA does not regulate ammonium nitrate then the company is not required to report the quantity stored onsite to EPA.

The forms filed under the RMP program for anhydrous ammonia only apply to anhydrous ammonia, not ammonium nitrate.

The company was fined in 2006 for not submitting the required RMP submittal for anhydrous ammonia.

If ammonium nitrate were regulated it would be covered by a seperate RMP submittal, it is not a program that covers everything under one submittal. Instead it is one RMP submittal per hazardous substance.

Furthermore, saying anhydrous ammonia is not flammable or explosive is not an incorrect statement.

This misinformation makes criminal negligence difficult to prove and the mainstream media scared. Asserting criminal negligence would probably be easier (but still difficult) under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (29 U.S.C. § 654, 5(a)1) or Clean Air Act (§ 112(r)(1)).

Wed Apr 24, 2013 at 7:02 AM PT: I should add that I have reviewed the RMP submittal the plant made to EPA. It is available online. The only submittal is for anhydrous ammonia, it indicates that there is no explosion hazard but that applies only to anhydrous ammonia.  So again, ammonium nitrate is not regulated.  I have sent this information to the reporter for The Nation, hopefully they correct the report.  The most glaring error in the RMP submittal is that it is listed under Program 2, anhydrous ammonia is only regulated under Program 3, it is also regulated under OSHA PSM.  I am wondering if they made the appropriate submittal to OSHA...

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Comment Preferences

  •  Storage safety (4+ / 0-)

    NFPA 400 (if the town of West had adopted codes to cover storage of AN, this is probably what they would have used) limits piles of AN to 20' high by 20' wide by 50' long. (about 600 tons) If the building is constructed of non-combustible material or has a sprinkler system, there is no length limit.

    So compliance with a storage safety code would not have reduced the amount stored there.

    •  Nice find! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      That is the first requirement I have seen that places a limit on ammonium nitrate at this facility.

      •  West -- EPA has clear Gen Duty Clause authority (0+ / 0-)

        General Duty Clause can cover West disaster  note   4 26 13

        It's important for folks to realize that there is a section of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 that definitely does allow EPA to regulate chemical facility safety, namely the General Duty Clause.   Section 112 r (1), which is quite broad, we disaster prevention proponents designed explicitly as a kind of catch-all authority, explicitly modeled on the OSHA General Duty Clause for worker safety.   The Section covers any extremely hazardous chemical on sites, in any amount and in any form, that could cause harm, EVEN IF the rest of Section 112 r does not include it on the list of covered chemicals that trigger the mandate for a facility Risk Management Program. Some 12,000 chemical facilities are already covered who have chemicals on this list.
        Many EPA fact sheets and guidance documents make this abundantly clear, and EPA has been using this authority recently in several cases.  
        So this is a question of Presidential leadership -- will he act strongly based on the tragic losses of brave but under-trained volunteer West fire fighters who showed up to fight the fire that preceded the huge explosions?  Similar to the greatest industrial disaster in US history, the 1947 blast which killed firefighters from miles around the Texas City port who rushed to the dock to train water on an ammonium nitrate ship fire.

  •  I have no idea which expert is right... (4+ / 0-)

    ...but you've given us plenty of reason to want a full investigation and a move toward tighter regulation, enforced regulation, which is the only kind that works.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Tue Apr 23, 2013 at 02:56:57 PM PDT

    •  It needs to be regulated (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      and first responder training needs to be adequate.  Those brave men should have been trained to evacuate along with the civilians they told to leave the area.  Fighting a fire that will explode at ~400 F is not proper training.

      This should be a bigger story.  EPA and OSHA need to take action because individual states like Texas simply are not going to.

  •  That ammonium nitrate is so unregulated (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    melfunction, RunawayRose

    Blows my mind (figuratively).

    I guess it'sblown up a lot of other things in history (literally).

  •  If no rules were broken, (4+ / 0-)

    we need to add some.

    I have to get my car inspected annually for safety in order to drive it.  My hairdresser has to be re-certified routinely and take continuing education to renew the license.  Re-testing and evaluation ought to be required for businesses, not just people.

    Be the change you want to see in the world. -Gandhi

    by DRo on Tue Apr 23, 2013 at 03:51:02 PM PDT

  •  Ammonium nitrate suppliers today (0+ / 0-)

    downplaying it's explosiveness, insisting there must be a hydrocarbon in the mix.

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