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Before Texas plant exploded: What did regulators know?

An aerial view shows the aftermath of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 18, 2013. REUTER
An aerial view shows the aftermath of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 18, 2013. REUTER

By Anna Driver and Joshua Schneyer

HOUSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Despite being located within a short walk of a nursing home, school and residential buildings, West Fertilizer Co in central Texas had no blast walls and had filed no contingency plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for a major explosion or fire at the site.

It remains unclear what safety measures, if any, were required of the company or whether West Fertilizer failed to comply. But on Wednesday night, the company's fertilizer complex in West, Texas - population, 2,600 - exploded with such force that 60 to 80 homes were flattened, the school and nursing home took heavy damage and at least 14 people were killed, authorities said.

In a 2011 filing with the EPA, the operators of West Fertilizer told regulators that a typical emergency scenario at the facility that holds anhydrous ammonia could result in a 10-minute release of the substance in gas form. That chemical, used as a fertilizer, is toxic to inhale but is not considered highly flammable or explosive, and the safety plan did not envisage any blast scenario.

In a separate filing earlier this year to the Texas Department of State Health Services, West Fertilizer disclosed that, as of the end of 2012, the company was also storing more volatile chemical compounds at the same address, including 270 tons of ammonium nitrate.

The same type of solid fertilizer was mixed with fuel and used by Timothy McVeigh to raze the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people. Sales of as little as 25 pounds (11 kg) of the substance are now tracked by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Investigators said on Thursday they remained concerned about volatile chemicals that may remain on the site, posing further risk. One official, McLennan County Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon, said ammonium nitrate was found at the scene. It was not known whether the site used or stored the substance before 2012.

"This is a fertilizer company and as it is, it has that type of component in it and it is a volatile product," Cawthon told reporters. "I don't know about anhydrous ammonia. I've been told about ammonium nitrate."

Authorities are investigating what caused Wednesday's blast, Cawthon said.

Public records show that the family-run company in recent years had at least two types of operations at its complex - one that sold and stored liquid fertilizer and another that dealt with dry fertilizer, using what experts consider more volatile ingredients.

West Fertilizer is owned by 83-year-old Donald Adair, and employed fewer than 10 people, according to a background report on the company from business information firm D&B. Adair and his wife, Wanda Adair, could not be reached for comment. A person who answered the phone at Adair Grains Inc, West Fertilizer's parent company, said the owners had survived the blast.

Ted Uptmore, listed as manager of the plant, could not be reached for comment, and other people listed in public records as working at the plant did not return phone calls. Craig Rogers, an owner at Security Truck Service, LLC, a contractor who hauls fertilizers and was listed as carrying out an independent safety inspection of the plant in June 2011, did not return a call requesting comment.

In a filing with the EPA in 2011, West Fertilizer outlined safety measures to deal with an incident involving only the less flammable liquid gas, anhydrous ammonia. The filing, obtained by the left-leaning Center for Effective Government, did not envisage an emergency scenario that would cause a fire or explosion.

PLANT'S SAFETY HISTORY AVERAGE

The privately held fertilizer plant, which has been in operation since 1962, has been cited for safety violations by regulators in the past. Records show the EPA fined West in 2006 for $2,300 for failing to update its risk management plan, a blueprint required to ensure safe operations.

At the time, the EPA found that the firm had poor employee training programs and did not have a formal written maintenance program in place. The EPA has not fined West Fertilizer since then, and the agency listed no outstanding violations as of Thursday.

The EPA, which has officials on the scene, said in a statement, "The facility, which is required by law to submit an updated plan at least every five years, submitted an updated plan in 2011."

West Fertilizer is subject to EPA regulation because the quantity of ammonia it stores on site is more than 10,000 pounds (4,530 kg).

In December 2006, it received a 10-year permit from Texas regulators that allowed for the operation of two 12,000-gallon (45,425-liter) storage tanks for anhydrous ammonia. The permit required West Fertilizer to carry out daily visual, auditory and olfactory inspections. It was not clear whether the firm required, or obtained, additional permits for operations involving more volatile compounds.

In 1985, the company, formerly known as West Chemical & Fertilizer, was cited five times by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Two of the violations were characterized as "serious," with one related to the storage and handling of anhydrous ammonia, federal records show. There were no records of OSHA fines in more recent years.

At a news conference on Thursday, Zak Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality described the plant's safety history as average.

"They don't have any negative complaints," Covar told reporters.

The Adair family is a fixture in the town of West. Wanda Adair, age 79, is listed as a co-owner at West Fertilizer, and as a director of the West Chamber of Commerce and a director of the local branch of the Kiwanis Club, a volunteer group. A call to the West Chamber of Commerce went unanswered.

A COMMON WAY TO OPERATE

Thousands of sites across rural America store potentially explosive materials and blend fertilizer for farmers, similar to West Fertilizer. In EPA reports, about 10,000 facilities say they store anhydrous ammonia.

Nitrogen-rich fertilizers help promote crop growth and are used by farms across the country.

Anhydrous ammonia is only flammable at temperatures exceeding 1,500 degrees F (816 C) and would not be expected to trigger such a massive blast, according to an expert.

"Farmers inject anhydrous ammonia into the soil and it is not very explosive per se," said K.A. Barbarick, a professor of crop sciences at Colorado State University.

Despite the fiery TV images and death toll from the blast, some in the fertilizer industry are not expecting calls for new restrictions on where and how such facilities can operate.

An estimated 6,500 farm retail stores in the United States blend, store or sell fertilizers to farmers, said Daren Coppock, chief executive of the Agricultural Retailers Association. The West Fertilizer plant is far from the only one near homes, he said.

(Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Ryan McNeill in New York, Erwin Seba and Kristen Hays in Houston; Editing by Janet Roberts, Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

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