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The fatal fertilizer explosion that occurred in West this past April touched off a wave of awareness about the dangers of ammonium nitrate.

And while the state's top fire official Chris Connealy is working to inform the public, the message isn't always being received.

When firefighters arrived at the West Fertilizer complex last April, they encroached upon a threat none of them understood. Residents across the street and down the block also had no clue. In fact a News 8 investigation discovered the county's local emergency planning committee was not meeting regularly as required by federal law.

Their Local Emergency Planning Committee never discussed the potential for disaster posed by a wooden storage bin filled with the fertilizer ammonium nitrate. Over the past eight months, federal and state officials have dissected the tragedy and new guidelines on storage and handling of ammonium nitrate have been recommended.

Also, new and stronger LEPCs have been organized around the state, including in McClennan County. In that county, Emergency Management Coordinator Frank Patterson built a website so residents can see locations of businesses storing dangerous chemicals.

'As you drive down the road you say, 'Hey, what's in that facility?'' he said. 'You may not know. Now, when you get home and log on to our website, it gives you access to see if there's a facility near where you live that stores hazardous chemicals.'

State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy is in charge of the larger awareness campaign.

'We want to prevent another West because the losses were so horrific,' he said. 'Losing 15 lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage is not acceptable and we have that responsibility.'

Marking every building in Texas that stores at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, the State Fire Marshal's Office has posted its own map on its website. In all, there are 108.

Meeting with fire officials and business owners, state fire officials have made on-site inspections across the state.

The greatest threat, they are being told, is the type of building the chemical is stored inside.

'Basically, having ammonium nitrate in a combustible facility where it's made of wood structure is the problem,' Connealy said. 'You may have some tin on the siding, but you have a wooden structure, you have wooden bins, that's a concern.'

Among the sites visited, one particular dilapidated wooden structure in downtown Athens was featured in a News 8 investigation last June. WFAA watched as more than 20 tons of ammonium nitrate was loaded into a building experts now warn poses a significant risk.

Months after the state fire marshal's on-site visit, WFAA paid a second visit to the building to see if anything was changed. To comply with state law, the owner added a no smoking sign and an oxidizer chemical warning sign to the exterior. But, WFAA also saw a more troubling sight on the outside, where nothing was done to replace brittle and deteriorating wood.

Looking through a hole in the exterior wall, WFAA observed a chemical placard indicating the presence of ammonium nitrate inside the building. Inside the wooden storage bins, WFAA saw what appeared to be tons of ammonium nitrate stacked to the ceiling in the same place it was stored last June.

The building's owner didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview. Then, in November, there was a scare. A restaurant across a narrow street from the ammonium nitrate storage facility caught fire in the middle of the night. Firefighters never gained control of the blaze as flames licked the night sky. The building was a total loss.

Athens fire officials say the storage barn across the street was never a concern. Yet, Facebook postings from townspeople aware of the fire expressed serious concerns. Two citizens in particular expressed fear of a replay of West.

'O.M.G., is that across from the fertilizer storage???' one wrote.

'Yes it is!' replied another.

'Oh no, praying for safety!!!!!'

Connealy told News 8 the ammonium nitrate in fact was a threat.

'Fires can extend beyond where they originally start,' he said. 'It could be through tender vegetation surrounding the structure or embers flying, any number of things. That's why we want to see ammonium nitrate in a non-combustible storage area.'

The next day, trucks were photographed offloading what appeared to be ammonium nitrate. The product removal would be a voluntary measure in an absence of any mandatory new laws or restrictions.

Even the state's website displays only an approximate location of ammonium nitrate storage facilities. State officials will not allow site specifics to be revealed. It's just one of the reasons why the state fire marshal continues his own statewide, county-by-county campaign to warn the public.

'We don't have the authority to mandate those changes,' Connealy said. 'We are certainly going to tell the story of what led to the explosion in West.'

Email bshipp@wfaa.com

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