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Safety board raps 'patchwork' regulations in Texas blast

Investigators stand amid the aftermath of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 18, 2013. RE
Investigators stand amid the aftermath of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 18, 2013. RE

By Matt Haldane

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The independent U.S. agency that investigates major chemical accidents said on Thursday that inadequate regulatory standards contributed to the massive fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people and leveled parts of the town of West, Texas.

Appearing before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, said the safekeeping of ammonium nitrate fertilizer falls under regulations that add up to "a patchwork that has many large holes."

The CSB issued 18 preliminary findings gleaned from its inquiry into the massive West explosion.

It found that the explosion resulted from an intense fire in a wooden warehouse building that led to the detonation of some 30 tons of ammonium nitrate (AN) stored inside, in wooden bins.

"Combustible wooden buildings and storage bins are permitted for storing ammonium nitrate across the United States - exposing AN to the threat of fire," Moure-Eraso said.

"Sprinklers are generally not required unless very large quantities of AN are being stored or fire authorities order sprinklers to be installed," he said.

The CSB also found that Texas has not adopted a statewide fire code and that state law prohibits most small, rural counties from doing so.

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co plant on April 17 killed 14 people including firefighters and others who responded to the fire, and injured about 200 other people.

Concerns about standards for ammonium nitrate dominated the hearing, which also touched on a blast at a chemical plant in Geismar, Louisiana, this month.

Ammonium nitrate was not on one of the lists that would have triggered the Process Safety Management or Risk Management programs, which are designed to prevent catastrophic incidents or off-site damage in the event of an accident.

Committee chair Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, expressed frustration that more action had not been taken years ago taken to prevent catastrophes.

"Ammonium nitrate would likely have been included, if the Environmental Protection Agency had adopted our 2002 recommendation," Boxer said.

Boxer referred to recommendations from the CSB in 2002 that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA "expand their standards to include reactive chemicals and hazards."

Sam Mannan, a chemical engineering specialist at Texas A&M University, testified that adhering to a standard set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, requiring ammonium nitrate to be stored in a separate building or separated by a firewall from certain organic materials, "might have helped in preventing the explosion."

It is unknown whether the West Fertilizer warehouse had firewalls, Mannan said.

Find the CSB's preliminary findings here: http://www.csb.gov/assets/1/19/West_Preliminary_Findings.pdf

(Reporting by Matt Haldane; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jim Loney)

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