Saturday, April 20, 2013

No Bleve at West Fertilizer

While I didn’t actually think that a bleve was responsible for the explosion at West Fertilizer this week (though I did discuss the possibility) I now have visual evidence that one was not involved (at least not an anhydrous ammonia bleve). A Reuter’s photo in a story on the Toronto Sun web site shows investigators (look real close) walking through the rubble around the anhydrous ammonia tanks. All five tanks that I identified earlier as probable anhydrous ammonia tanks are still present and intact.


Stu Fischbeck said...

Is it just me, or are there only four AA tanks in the pic?

I also love how the article incorrectly attributes chemical safety to the DHS. Between the regulatory schemes, government bureaucracy, and media ignorance, I'm surprised we keep anything safe and/or secure.

Fred Millar said...

President Obama has said the necessary healing words to the people of the Waco area tragically impacted April 17 by the magnitude of the West Fertilizer plant explosion, which showed an unfortunately typical small agricultural area community ill-informed and therefore ill-prepared to prevent disaster. Texas in 1947 saw the greatest industrial disaster in US history, with some 550 dead, the blast which killed scores of firefighters from miles around the Texas City port who had rushed dockside training water on a burning ammonium nitrate ship.

Two former US EPA Administrators, Christine Todd Whitman and Lisa Jackson, have said bluntly that US EPA needs no new authority to act to beef up chemical plant safety and security: "We should use the authority we already have", Jackson said after the West explosion, to get urgent, joint federal agency action on disaster prevention.

It is clear that the 7-person fertilizer facility was NOT in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which require even very small companies handling extremely hazardous chemicals to prevent disasters. The Adair company filed two different reports with federal and state agencies; both failed to indicate that it was required to perform numerous protective actions to prevent an ammonium nitrate disaster.

We disaster prevention proponents in 1990 designed the Act's Section 112 r (1) with an initial General Duty Clause, deliberately as a kind of catch-all authority that would cover even brand-new chemicals in a dynamic and fast-evolving set of high-risk industries. We explicitly modeled it on the longstanding Occupational Safety and Health Act's General Duty Clause for worker safety.

The Clean Air Act's General Duty Clause says "the owners and operators of stationary sources [facilities] producing, processing, handling or storing [any extremely hazardous substance] have a general duty to identify hazards which may result from releases [including fire, explosion, toxic gas cloud] using appropriate hazard assessment techniques, to design and maintain a safe facility taking such steps as are necessary to prevent releases, and to minimize the consequences of accidental releases which do occur."

The Clause covers facilities with any extremely hazardous chemical on sites, in any amount and in any form, that could cause serious harm. Even if EPA did not include it [as ammonium nitrate is absent] on the ever-evolving List of "covered" chemicals that triggers the Act's better-known mandate for a thorough facility Risk Management Program -- now being submitted by some 12,000 facilities. And even if there is no general industry safe handling guidance or National Fire Protection Association consensus standards covering the chemical activity at the plant.
Many EPA fact sheets and guidance documents make this broad coverage abundantly clear, and EPA has been using General Duty Clause authority recently in several cases. See EPA's 2009 fact sheet: And some law firms have vividly warned corporate clients about the power of the General Duty Clause:
Like many agriculture industry-sponsored bills in Congress which often seek to obstruct federal safety regulation, the new H.R. 888 seeks to "clarify" EPA's General Duty Clause authority, using the argument that the Clause needs specific regulation if it is to cover ammonium nitrate and other ultra-hazardous chemicals not on the List. In other words, it seeks to defeat the very purpose of a General Duty Clause. Sponsors include 11 Republicans and one Democrat, Jim Matheson of Utah. From their letter: “We have concerns about EPA’s arbitrary application of the General Duty Clause as well as the potential for future expansion of the General Duty Clause to regulate the security of chemical facilities.”

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