Texas Fertilizer Explosion Dangers: Dangerous Ammonium Nitrate Bombs in Texas
Ammonium nitrate is a very popular fertilizer, because of its effectiveness in relatively dry conditions. When properly ventilated and kept relatively cool, the chemical is relatively stable and safe. But mix it with extreme heat or pressure, it becomes an enormously explosive chemical. It was the main ingredient in the mix of explosives that took down the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. That event triggered a number of federal laws that require those companies that store ammonium nitrate to report more than 400 pounds to the Department of Homeland Security. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) also requires that all such sites be licensed and mandates buffer zones between the sites and nearby residential and commercial areas.
In the wake of the massive explosion and tragedy in West, Texas, which may have been caused by the presence of as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, there has been an increased emphasis on safety in many communities, and there are questions as to whether or not there are too many stores of the chemical too close to population centers, thus endangering large numbers of Texans. Because 12 of the fifteen dead at West were first responders, fire departments in some communities are refusing to respond to fires at such facilities, except under very restrictive circumstances.
Recently, the Dallas Morning News reported there are 74 sites within the state of Texas that store, and that as many as 20,000 people live within a half mile of these sites. For example, in Dublin, a tiny rural town 100 miles from Dallas, sits a facility that stores more than one million pounds of ammonium nitrate at any given time, and more than a third of the town’s population of 3,650 live within a half mile of it.
Reporters called the fire departments in the towns where these 74 facilities were located, and found that most had volunteer fire departments, with no full time firefighters, and that they were located in counties with populations that were, according to state law, too small to develop their own fire code. This, despite the fact that the state of Texas has no fire code. Most fire officials in those places were aware of these facilities, and had paid a visit to the sites since the West explosion.
In the wake of the explosions and destruction in West, Texas, Federal, State and local regulators, as well as the owners of these plants, focus on safety, preparation, and readiness, including training first responder training and putting disaster plans in place. The state of Texas should also either develop a fire code, with minimum standards that apply everywhere, or reconsider allowing small counties to develop their own fire codes. This tragedy will repeat, until someone takes steps to stop it.