April 26, 2013 — Investigators haven’t determined what caused last week’s fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, but they know that it somehow ignited tanks filled with anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate. Reuters reported that documents filed by West Fertilizer Company indicated that state and local officials were informed that the plant could hold up to 270 tons of the highly-flammable fertilizer on site, but the federal Department of Homeland Security was never informed. It is unknown how much fertilizer was on site at the time of the explosion, because all records were destroyed.
In addition to highly-flammable ammonium nitrate, West Fertilizer also stored anhydrous ammonia (pure liquid ammonia without water), which is stored in high-pressure tanks to keep it in a liquid form, with some ammonia gas. Ammonia doesn’t burn easily, but it will ignite at temperatures above 1204˚F. If the initial fire heated the tanks, the metal could have melted and ruptured the tanks. This could have released ammonia gas and caused the rapid vaporization of the liquid chemical, causing a “boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.”
Although ammonium nitrate used to be a popular fertilizer, it is not used in most fertilizer facilities in the United States, and only 2% of nitrogen fertilizer sold in the U.S. was ammonium nitrate. However, in places like Central Texas that have alkaline soils, ammonium nitrate is still used because it is the cheapest and most efficient way to deliver nitrogen to the plants. Farmers can inject it into the soil as liquefied ammonia, where it expands into a gas that is absorbed by the soil.
Most other parts of the country don’t stock ammonium nitrate due to the burden of federal regulations on businesses that store more than 2,000 pounds of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate. Residents of West who were interviewed by journalists said that the owners of the plant were doing a “service” to local farmers by providing the fertilizer.
Although West Fertilizer was storing 1,350-times the amount needed to trigger safety oversight by the federal government, they failed to notify the Department of Homeland Security, which supervises storage of dangerous chemicals because it can be used to make bombs in a terrorist attack. The lapse in oversight may have been due to state and local agencies failing to inform federal agencies.
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