June 18, 2018
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With West, Texas explosion, risk assessment even more key

Debris from a destroyed housing complex lies near a damaged vehicle, next to the site of a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas on April 21, 2013.

The giant explosion that rocked a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas last Wednesday ought to mandate a hard look by the federal government at rules governing the booming chemicals business. The country’s sudden abundance of cheap natural gas, a primary input in the manufacture of many things including artificial fertilizer, has begun to attract chemical companies back to the United States, which certainly could use the jobs. But, as with any big industrial operation, chemicals manufacturing and storage brings a host of risks, toxic and explosive.

The right response is simple: Make companies comprehensively assess the risks they and those around their facilities face. Then they can take reasonable steps to guard against those risks and plan what to do when everything goes wrong. Wednesday night’s explosion should not have been a total surprise but rather a worst-case scenario the company had anticipated and prepared for.

Journalists have already picked apart a 2011 risk assessment from West Fertilizers that the Center for Effective Government printed on its website. In it, the company told the Environmental Protection Agency that it had 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site but that there was no danger of fire or explosion. Following Wednesday’s disaster, that claim seems to be tragically negligent.

Yet it probably stems from the fact that the EPA’s rules only cover gases such as ammonia, which is flammable only in extreme heat. There was another more volatile chemical on site, ammonium nitrate, that the EPA heard nothing about, because it is a solid. To store large amounts of ammonium nitrate, the company needed to file notice not with the EPA, but with the Department of Homeland Security, which reports suggest the company did not do.

Even if it had, it’s bizarre that all of this information wasn’t in the same place. Shouldn’t the possibility that the ammonium nitrate could ignite and explode have demanded that the company consider the chance that it would light up the ammonia? Risks shouldn’t just be considered in isolation from one another; companies must contemplate how they might interact.

The Washington Post (April 21)

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