West Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

May 9, 2013 — Authorities have determined that a store of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at the West Fertilizer Company caused the explosion on April 17, killing 14 people, injuring hundreds, and devastating the nearby town. Fire officials have said that they are still working to determine what started the initial fire at the plant before the explosion, and it may be several more weeks before the investigation is complete.

So far, investigators have determined that the fire started somewhere in a 12,000 square-foot storage building for fertilizer and seeds. However, they don’t know exactly where the fire started. Fire officials have stated that finding the source of the blaze is the “number-one issue that we’re trying to resolve right now.”

In the early stages of the investigation, media reports and local officials stated that anhydrous ammonia may have fueled the explosion. Although the liquid chemical reacts with water and was stored in two high-pressure tanks, it is not nearly as flammable as ammonium nitrate. Some had speculated that water used in fire-fighting activities may have contributed to the explosion, but investigators have ruled that out. Furthermore, the tanks of anhydrous ammonia were located behind a wall and they were shielded from the explosion — suggesting that ammonium nitrate fueled the explosion.

Unlike anhydrous ammonia, which is a liquid, ammonium nitrate is a dry fertilizer that is mixed with other fertilizers like phosphate and added to crops. Because this was the spring planting season in West, Texas, it is likely that massive amounts of the fertilizer were stored on site. West Fertilizer Company has a capacity of up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, though no one knows exactly how much fertilizer was on site because records were destroyed.

Mystery also remains as to how the ammonium nitrate exploded. Fire alone cannot cause it to explode. This has led fire officials to look for other explanations — such as intense pressure, high heat, or any ignition source.

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