Why Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Should Have Been Prevented

On Wednesday night, a huge explosion rocked the small town of West, Texas, stemming from what appears to be flammable vapors from a fertilizer plant.  At this point, estimates are that the explosion has killed as many as 15 people and injured over 160 others.

According to reports, the explosion began with a small fire at West Fertilizer plant in downtown West.  The fire apparently spread to the area where the flammable chemicals used to treat the fertilizer were stored in large tanks.  Once the fire ignited the extremely flammable vapors of the fertilizer chemicals, a huge explosion occurred.

The explosion tore not only through the fertilizer plant itself, but also through scores of homes and businesses in the area.  According to mayor Tommy Muska, 50 to 60 houses in a five-block vicinity of the fertilizer plant were devastated by the explosion, leading to the huge numbers of those injured and killed.

Once the search and rescue has completed, attention will shift to the obvious question: How did this happen?  And then the follow-up question:  How should this have been prevented?

Flammable Vapor Explosions

To understand how this explosion and others occur, it is necessary to recognize the three basic requirements for a fire to occur: (1) fuel; (2) oxygen; and (3) an ignition source.  This is known as the “fire triangle,” and without one of these requirements, a fire will not occur.

In the fertilizer plant explosion, the three requirements were present as follows: (1) the flammable chemicals used to treat the fertilizer served as the fuel; (2) there was plenty of oxygen in the plant; and (3) the small fire was the ignition source.

Ammonium Nitrate and Anhydrous Ammonia

The “fuel” involved in the West Fertilizer explosion appears to be ammonium-related:  either ammonium nitrate or anhydrous ammonia.  It isreported that West Fertilizer Company had upwards of 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at their facility at the time.

There have been several devastating ammonium-related explosions over the years, including the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 caused by a fertilizer truck bomb that was detinated outsider the federal building.   Both ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia (or simply “ammonia”) are widely-used as the nitrogen source for fertilizers.  The chemicals are usually stored in tanks as a liquid.

Ammonium nitrate is extremely explosive in large concentrations, which is why it is used in explosive devices.

Anhydrous ammonia is usually non-flammable, however in high concentrations ammonia vapor will burn.  For instance, if hundreds of gallons of anhydrous ammonia are exposed to oxygen and fire — as it appears was the case at West Fertilizer — an explosion can occur.

Fire Safety Mechanisms That Should Have Prevented the Fertilizer Plant Explosion

West Fertilizer should have had a variety of safety mechanisms in place to prevent this explosion from occurring.

For instance, the National Fire Protection Association (“NFPA”) publishes standards regarding the storage, use and handling of flammable and combustible liquids and gases.  NFPA Standard No. 490, “Code for the Storage of Ammonium Nitrate,” covers things like proper storage, airflow, and ignition source control.  Other federal agencies, such as the Occupational Safety & Health Organization (“OSHA”), has similar requirements to prevent fires and explosions inside of chemical plants.

An explosion like this simply should not happen if appropriate safety procedures are followed.

In any large-scale explosion such as this one, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board will conduct a thorough investigation of the cause and origin of the explosion, as well as make determinations as to how this explosion should have been prevented.

We look forward to getting to the bottom of how this horrible incident occurred, holding those responsible accountable, and working to strengthen safety mechanisms to prevent incidents like this from occurring again.  For a free consultation with one of our national burn injury lawyers, call the Burn Injury Firm toll free at 866-293-2615.