OSHA fines West Fertilizer Co. $118,000 for 'serious violations'

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by MATT GOODMAN

WFAA

Posted on October 10, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Updated Thursday, Oct 10 at 6:26 PM

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued 24 citations to the West Fertilizer Company for serious safety violations found in an investigation following the deadly explosion there in April.

Fifteen people were killed and more than 160 were injured in the April 17 blast. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D – Calif., announced the citations on a conference call with reporters Thursday morning.

Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is heading the charge at the Capitol to determine whether regulations were followed at the fertilizer plant ahead of the April blast. She said the owner, Adair Grain Inc., will have to pay $118,300 in fines. The citations were issued Wednesday morning, Boxer said.

The explosion, which left a crater 90 feet wide and 10 feet deep, caused more than $100 million in property damages, according to a report by the Insurance Council of Texas. More than 200 homes were destroyed or damaged. In May, a $1 million investigation by state and federal officials did not find a concrete cause for the explosion. 

The fire did begin in the plant's seed room, which backed up to an ammonium nitrate storage bin. The location housed 150 tons of the chemical, of which between 28 and 34 exploded. The force of the ammonium nitrate explosion was equal to 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of dynamite exploding.

Boxer said she scheduled the conference call because she is concerned that inspections of facilities housing large amounts of chemicals are lagging due to the government shut down. 

“I'm stepping in here in the hopes that, as a result of my telling you these things, maybe another explosion could be prevented,” she said. 

The citations, which Boxer repeatedly described as “serious safety violations,” are for, among other things, unsafe handling and storage of anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate. OSHA found poor labeling of ammonia storage tanks as well as replacement hoses that were not tested for pressure. 

The West Fertilizer Co. was found to have inadequate relief valves and no barrier protection around the ammonia piping. There was no respiratory protection program, OSHA found, nor were there appropriate fire extinguishers. Forklift operators were not property trained and the fertilizer plant did not have a hazard communication program or an emergency response plan. 

News 8 has previously detailed McLennan County's lack of a Local Emergency Planning Committee, a federally mandated group meant to prepare residents for an emergency situation at plants storing mass amounts of chemicals. 

Frank Patterson, the county's emergency manager, said the citations are helping residents and officials piece together what exactly happened at the fertilizer plant. 

"I think that's a step in the right direction," he told News 8's David Schechter. "Just like the CSB (Chemical Safety Board), the OSHA findings, I think all these findings, we put them together and we get a good visual of what happened. 

The Fort Worth branch of OSHA headed the investigation. The last time OSHA inspected the plant was 1985. In the call, Boxer, who does not oversee OSHA but does have oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Chemical Safety Board, said she wished chemical plants were inspected more often. However, resources make that difficult. 

“There’s how many of these all over the country? Thousands of these plants,” she said. “Yes, there should be more inspections. That’s up to your Texas delegation. I don’t’ think they’re ready to spend more on putting more cops on the beat so the fact is, we have to hope that our businesses have some moral obligation to do the right thing.” 

The investigation into the West explosion is ongoing. More fines are possible, Boxer said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the State Fire Marshal's Office have not filed completed reports. 

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