Study: Ammonium Nitrate Oversight Limited, Rules Outdated

(File photo)

WASHINGTON (May 21, 2014) A Government Accountability Office study that was ordered after the April 17, 2013 West fertilizer plant explosion found that the government has no way of knowing which facilities in the U.S. stock ammonium nitrate, the chemical that exploded after a fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Co., killing 15, injuring more than 200 others and destroying scores of buildings and homes.

The report released Wednesday details outdated federal regulations, poor sharing of information with states, and standards that don’t match those of other industrial nations, and concludes that without improved monitoring, federal regulators won't know "the extent to which dangerous conditions at some facilities may continue to exist."

Neither the Occupational Health and Safety Administration nor the Environmental Protection Agency requires facilities to report stocks of ammonium nitrate and the Department of Homeland Security only requires facilities with certain amounts of the chemical to report holdings for security purposes, the GAO said.

As of August 2013, the report says, at least 1,300 facilities in 47 states reported holdings to the DHS.

Using data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Office of the State Chemist and DHS, the report identified 189 facilities that reported having stocks of ammonium nitrate, 52 of which filed reports with DHS.

The DHS data aren’t shared routinely with federal agencies and the EPA does not require states to report their data.

OSHA and EPA provide only limited oversight of facilities with ammonium nitrate, the report says.

OSHA does have rules governing the storage of the chemical, but they haven’t been significantly revised since 1971 and still allow storage of ammonium nitrate in wooden buildings, as was the case in West.

OSHA and EPA regulations that require hazard assessments, prevention and response procedures and routine compliance audits, don’t apply to ammonium nitrate, the report found.

By comparison, in Canada, facilities with stocks of 22 tons or more of ammonium nitrate are required to complete risk assessments and to have emergency plans.

In Germany ammonium nitrate and ammonium nitrate-based preparations must be separated by brick or concrete walls from combustible materials.

A total of as much as 64 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in the wooden building in West, 28 to 34 tons of which exploded, 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.

The report recommends better data sharing among federal agencies, that OSHA and the EPA consider revising related regulations to cover ammonium nitrate, and that OSHA “conduct an outreach to the fertilizer industry and target high risk facilities for inspection.”