Shutdown Halts Investigation Of Deadly West Explosion

The site of the deadly West explosion. (Photo by Kyle Muscarello)

(October 9, 2013)--The partial government shutdown has temporarily halted the federal investigation of the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. said.

Boxer told The Dallas Morning News that the federal agencies reviewing the April 17 blast that killed 15 people can't meet because of the shutdown.

A presidential executive order set a Nov. 1 deadline for the agencies to submit proposals, but Boxer says those will “definitely be delayed.”

Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, says her committee was working with the Environmental Protection Agency on proposals for ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer that detonated in the blast, killing 15, injuring about 200 and damaging or destroying dozens of homes and buildings.

The Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial accidents, has furloughed all but four of its 41 employees.

In June the board presented the preliminary findings of its investigation of the explosion in West to the committee.

It said the regulation of dangerous chemicals falls under a "patchwork" of standards that are decades old and weaker than those used elsewhere.

The board was the first federal agency to acknowledge lax oversight of ammonium nitrate, the chemical that caused the explosion in West.

The West plant had no sprinkler systems and the chemical was stored in wooden bins.

State and federal investigators who spent weeks excavating the blast site determined that the fire that led to the powerful explosion was caused either by a battery-powered golf cart that was kept in the fertilizer and seed building in which the fire started, the building’s 120-volt electrical system or by an intentional criminal act.

As much as 64 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in the building, 28 to 34 tons of which exploded, investigators said, while an additional 20 to 30 tons in the building and another 100 tons in a nearby rail car did not explode.

The total amount of ammonium nitrate on the site was about 150 tons, less than 270 tons that federal records indicated was stored at the plant.

By comparison, the amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded on April 17 in West was about 12 times the amount used in the truck bomb that blew the side off of the Albert P. Murrah federal building on April 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City.

The fire actually caused two explosions, just milliseconds apart, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said.

The first, which was the result of some combination of heat, building pressure from containment and shock from falling debris and equipment, triggered the second larger blast, he said.

The Chemical Safety Board says guidelines for firefighters on how to fight such a blaze are vague.