Saturday, 20 April 2013

Texas fertilizer company failed to report accurate inventory levels

Texas fertilizer company failed to report accurate inventory levels, The Texas fertilizer plant owned by West Fertilizer Co. was an accident waiting to happen. The plant was located in a residential area and it held an enormous amount of extremely hazardous ammonium nitrate. Last year, the plant stored an enough ammonium nitrate to trigger an investigation by any number of local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to an April 20 NBC News article, West Fertilizer did not report accurate inventory levels and the plant did not draw the proper attention from the government.

The accident happened, all right. Fourteen people died, dozens are injured, 60 are still missing and 50 homes were destroyed. The blast was so large it registered as a 2.1 earthquake. Investigators do not know why the plant exploded, but it was the worst disaster of that type since a 1947 ammonium nitrate explosion in a Texas port. Almost 600 people died in that disaster.

Fertilizer plants and depots with more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate in stock are required to report to the DHS. DHS screens and monitors the facilities as potential security risks. Other reports go to a maze of local, state and federal agencies. West Fertilizer Co. reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services last year, but said the plant only had 270 tons of the highly hazardous substance.

Such businesses try to blame non-compliance on a web of regulations and reporting requirements that cross over many agencies. No one is buying that, since one report, the top-screen report, would have alerted DHS of a simple, true inventory total. Other reports are a normal part of doing business with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Even the local fire Marshall should have been able to tell that something was wrong.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS) is the head of the House Committee on Homeland Security. He said, "It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid. This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up." In other words, West Fertilizer Co. reported having less that the 400 pounds that would require being in the CFATS program. According to an April 20 Yahoo News report, this indicates that the fertilizer company did not heed disclosure rules.

If West Fertilizer had honestly reported, one agency or another would have been motivated to investigate further. Now the agencies must self-investigate to determine how such a cascading set of failures happened across so many local, state and Federal agencies.

West Fertilizer's plant is just one of thousands in rural America that store and sell hazardous chemicals and fertilizer for agricultural use. Farmers use ammonium nitrate to boost the nitrogen in the soil and it should be obvious that self-reporting creates a serious gap in inventory accuracy.

Another problem is that many of these fertilizer plants are near residences and schools. If the West Fertilizer situation is any indication, many more locations could hold vastly more ammonium nitrate than they report to the government, making accidents a bigger threat than terrorist plots.

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