Texas? environmental agency knew in 2006 that West Fertilizer Co. was handling 2,400 tons a year of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate in a warehouse near schools, houses and a nursing home, documents show.
The notation in a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit form apparently raised no concerns, either internally or with other agencies, about explosion risks or the proper management of a chemical already notorious in Texas history for its deadly qualities when heated to extreme temperatures or exposed to shock.
Other agencies that knew about the dangerous stockpile also failed to pose such questions to their peers, records and interviews indicate. The explosion April 17 in the Central Texas town of West killed 14 people, including 10 volunteer firefighters, burned a school and destroyed or damaged buildings over a 35-block area.
How a fire caused the ammonium nitrate to detonate is the focus of federal and state investigations into the explosion.
For the TCEQ, which has by far the longest reach of any Texas regulatory agency and issues permits for many agricultural companies, ammonium nitrate safety is the job of a much smaller agency that specializes in testing farm products for quality and purity, the Office of the Texas State Chemist.
?We don?t, at TCEQ, evaluate the explosive threat associated with these types of facilities,? said Bryan W. Shaw, Gov. Rick Perry?s appointee as TCEQ chairman. ?We look at the environmental and health impacts,? such as whether routine air emissions will cause a local problem, he said.
Even when processing environmental permits for companies handling ammonium nitrate, asking about fertilizer fire and explosion risks is not the TCEQ?s job, Shaw said. At the explosion scene, the TCEQ has helped determine that the blast did not spread pollution through the town, he said.
Shaw identified the state chemist and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration as having responsibility for regulating fertilizer fire and explosion risks.
No such scrutiny
But the regulatory scrutiny for ammonium nitrate storage that Shaw outlined does not exist.
The federal pipeline agency governs only transportation, not storage. And the head of the state chemist?s office, Tim Herrman, said his agency has no legal authority or expertise to pursue fire or explosive safety at places that store ammonium nitrate.
?That doesn?t fall within our purview, and it?s fair to say we are not fire-safety experts,? Herrman said. ?Nor is that part of our inspection activity, nor is that in our law or rules.?
Uniform rules lacking
There are no uniform federal rules for ammonium nitrate storage, and state rules vary. But fire safety experts have long expounded best practices such as structural fire protection, emergency drills, worker training and protective buffer zones between storage facilities and homes and schools.