Athens residents alarmed by ammonium nitrate near town square

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on June 19, 2013 at 10:00 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 19 at 7:58 PM

East Texas Ag Supply

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ATHENS, Texas — Ammonium nitrate, the chemical fertilizer, is being blamed for the deadly explosion in West two months ago.

State health officials say there are 129 buildings across the state storing dangerous levels of ammonium nitrate.

But in downtown Athens, Texas, few citizens are aware of a stockpile of the fertilizer similar to the amount that exploded in West.

Athens is a quiet East Texas community where the town square is still active and a place where residents enjoy the simple life.

But just one block off the square, one encounters a not-so-quaint setting.

Outside of an old building that some say needs to be torn down, there's a different type of activity. Several times a week, a chemical truck pulls up in front and unloads something into the building.

Nothing illegal is going on. In fact, what's inside is typically harmless.

We watched a truck driver unload 25 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

The driver said he's been delivering to the building for 15 years. The driver said he is familiar with the hazards of ammonium nitrate, but he doesn’t believe anything at this warehouse poses a threat.

By now, the whole country is aware of what happened in West on April 17. Ammonium nitrate stored in a wooden blending plant caught on fire and exploded.

After that disaster, Athens resident Charles Spann became suspicious of what was going on in the building just off the town square.

The chemical trucks in front of the unmarked old building carried placards that indicated they were carrying ammonium nitrate.

"A facility like this, if it blew, it could take down the annex and hurt a lot of innocent people," Spann said. "It seems like the controls are just not working."

One reason residents may not have known a hazardous chemical was being stored inside is because the building's owner, East Texas Ag Supply, failed to notify state health officials until after the ammonium nitrate explosion in West.

But that's not the only concern.

The roof and interior of the Athens building is mostly wood, just like in West. National Fire Protection Association guidelines urge caution when storing ammonium nitrate in wooden bins.

So does State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, who told News 8 that housing ammonium nitrate in a wood structure is "not a good idea."

The NFPA also warns about contaminating the ammonium nitrate with gasoline or oil. News 8 watched as a gas-powered front end loader zipped around, lifting and dumping inside of a bin storing the ammonium nitrate.

And how do neighbors feel about ammonium nitrate being stored just a block from their businesses and homes... and until now, without their knowledge?

"I’m concerned," said resident Rebecca Berdice, who lives less than a block away. "Now that I know what's in there, yeah, I'm very concerned."

Jeremy Haning, who has worked across the street from the building for years, shared that sentiment.

"Yes, I’m concerned that 25 tons of ammonium nitrate is being stored in that building right now," he said.

When News 8 started asking questions last month, Athens Fire Chief John McQueary said he was aware of what was in the building and that the building was safe.

He later told the local newspaper "...that ammonium nitrate is not going to go off; we're going to be able to put that out."

The chief provided News 8 with only one fire inspection record from last November. No hazards were noted, only the need for extinguishers and a "no smoking" sign.

There was also no mention of tons of chemicals posing an explosion risk inside.

Chief McQueary first agreed do a recorded interview with News 8, but last Friday, he not only changed his mind, but he called the Athens police when we first refused to turn our camera off.

McQueary later told us that he believes Athens residents have a right to know what's in the building. He also shared a recently-crafted action plan specifically for that building.

The bottom line: If a fire in that building starts to grow out of control, evacuate.

The building owner declined an on-camera interview, but told us he feels the building is sound and is not a fire hazard.

As to why he didn't file a hazardous chemical disclosure report with the Texas Department of State Health Services until a few weeks ago, he told us he didn't know he was supposed to.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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