Federal Investigators: West Explosion Could Have Been Prevented

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DALLAS (April 22, 2014) The U.S. Chemical Safety Board Tuesday released the findings of a months-long investigation of the deadly April 17, 2013 West fertilizer plant explosion, which officials say could have been prevented.

Chemical Safety Board officials discussed their findings at a public meeting Tuesday evening in West. (Photo by Matt Howerton)

The board's investigation did not uncover significant new details about what happened or identify the cause of the fire, but it does underscore the need for more regulation, officials said.

The plant’s owners failed to take the necessary measures to prevent a fire, officials said, pointing out that the ammonium nitrate that exploded was stored in a wooden building that did not have a fire-suppressing sprinkler system.

"The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable, " board Chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said.

"It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it," he said.

Agencies at all levels must do more to monitor facilities that store the chemical, board Moure-Eraso said earlier during a news conference Tuesday morning in Dallas

The board also found that “West volunteer firefighters were not aware of the explosion hazard from the (ammonium nitrate) stored at West Fertilizer and were caught in harm’s way when the blast occurred,” a CBS press release said.

“At the county level, McLennan County’s local emergency planning committee did not have an emergency response plan for West Fertilizer as it might have done under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act,” the release said.

Officials held a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the West Community Center at 205 Tokio Rd.

The board presented the preliminary findings of its investigation in June 2013, but progress was delayed by the partial government shutdown last fall.

The board, which investigates industrial accidents, furloughed all but four of its 41 employees.

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

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.

Twelve first responders and three residents died as a result of the explosion and hundreds of others were injured.

The explosion destroyed or damaged scores of homes and buildings including schools, a nursing home and an apartment complex.