Fertilizer Plant That Exploded In West, Texas Faces $118,300 In Fines

Apartments destroyed by the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion last year CREDIT: AP
Apartments destroyed by the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion last year CREDIT: AP

West Fertilizer Co., the plant that exploded in April, killing 15 people, is facing federal fines totaling $118,300 for two dozen serious safety violations that include its lack of an emergency response plan, the Associated Press reports.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), violations include unsafe handling and storage of anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, inadequately labeled storage tanks, failure to pressure-test replacement hoses, and the lack of respiratory protection or appropriate fire extinguishers.

West Fertilizer Co. has 15 days to either pay the fine or file an administrative appeal, so the penalties could be reduced. A company spokesman said its lawyers are reviewing the citations and proposed fine.

For his part, West Mayor Tommy Muska said the OSHA investigation came too late, saying, “The damage has already been done.”

Indeed, OSHA had failed to inspect the plant for 28 years. The plant also slipped by six other regulatory agencies. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last inspected the West plant in 2011, when it issued a $10,100 fine for missing placards, transporting anhydrous ammonia in non-specification tanks, and “not having a security plan” in violation of Hazardous Materials Regulation, but the plant took corrective action and the penalty was lowered to $5,250. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a $2,300 in 2006 for failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards, but it wasn’t fined again after that, and in its own report to the EPA it claimed it posed no fire or explosive risk and said the worst case scenario was a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t harm anyone. A complaint of an ammonia smell triggered an investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2006, although it took the agency 11 days to inspect the plant. After citing the company for failing to get an air quality permit, it didn’t return. While fertilizer facilities are required to report to the Department of Homeland Security if they hold more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate (the plant had 270 tons), it failed to do so, although it did report to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

And while the plant received a special permit to be located less than 3,000 feet from a school, which was forced to evacuate due to a fire in February, there is no federal agency that controls how close plants can be to population centers, so it is left up to local zoning authorities. Meanwhile, more than 4,000 chemical facilities across the country could impact a population similar to West’s in a worst-case scenario, with 90 that could affect more than 1 million people.

The proposed fine itself also pales in comparison to the damage caused by the explosion. Property damage alone was estimated to reach $100 million. The town needs to repair roads, the sewer system, and the nearby school, which will cost $57 million. The town lost $29 million in taxable value in the blast, which excludes the costs on schools and infrastructure. Many victims faced the possibility of having to pay property taxes on destroyed homes. Yet the plant was only insured for $1 million worth of damages, since Texas doesn’t require facilities to have insurance that would cover the cost of the potential damage they could cause.