Companies are charged with learning the risks associated with their chosen industry and working to provide safety measure to prevent injury to workers and the public. Anyone working in the fertilizer industry knows or has heard about the dangers and characteristics of anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate that can lead to deadly explosions. The risks associated with anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate are well documented. They have both been associated with crudely made bombs used in terrorist attacks. Anhydrous ammonia tanks have warning stickers all over them. After the Oklahoma City Bombing, the feds even began tracking and regulating large purchases of ammonium nitrate. Yet, with this widespread understanding of the risks of anhydrous ammonia, West Fertilizer Company told the EPA that their plant posed “No Risk” of explosions.
According to several reports, before the explosion Wednesday, West Fertilizer officials told both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials and local authorities that the West, Texas factory, that killed at least 15 people and injured at least 160 others, posed no risk of either fire or explosion.
In its emergency planning report, the company stated that it had as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand. Anhydrous ammonia is a chemical gas with suffocating fumes that is capable of explosion at very high temperatures, yet West indicated in their report that the worst possible scenario would be a 10-minute release of the gas, which would result in no injuries or deaths whatsoever. They also said there was “no” risk of fire or explosion.
In 2006, the company was cited by the state for its failure to get or qualify for a permit, and was fined for that. That same year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated the plant that year in response to a complaint of a “very bad.” ammonia smell. They were also cited and fined in 2006 for their failure have in place an adequate risk management plan. However, the U.S. Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t inspected the plant since 1985.
While fertilizer plant explosions are not very common, with only 17 such blasts since 1921 and only six of those being in the United States, the fertilizer business is growing quickly, with the United States in the position to see the bulk of that growth, because of fracking, which makes the natural gas used to produce fertilizer cheap and plentiful.
The public will and should demand that these types of assertions made by a company known to produce a potentially explosive compound be explained. These statements may represent fraudulent, even criminal, statements that could lead to criminal charges. It is too soon to tell the background and basis for these assertions but the public deserves a complete explanation. As West, Texas cleans up, injured people are treated, and families grieve their losses, authorities must act to hold people accountable to this terrible tragedy. If you have questions about your individual legal rights, Hill Law Firm is here to discuss your legal options. Call today!