Local handlers of ammonium nitrate are facing additional scrutiny in the wake of the fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 more in West two weeks ago.
Experts say ammonium nitrate may have triggered the massive explosion at West Fertilizer Co. that destroyed or damaged buildings over a 35-block area and registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake.
Denton County and state reports show that Justin Seed Co. stores ammonium nitrate at its location, which sits along the city’s main corridor within walking distance of a residential neighborhood.
Jody Gonzalez, fire marshal and Denton County emergency management coordinator, said that over the course of a year quantities of such chemicals can vary, as can the risk.
In addition, “there are lots of different ammonium nitrates and a lot depends on how it’s mixed,” Gonzalez said.
Businesses subject to disclosure under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act file reports, known as Tier II chemical reports, with the state and with local emergency planning committees and fire departments telling officials what hazardous substances they have on site. They report the maximum amount of each hazardous material stored in the previous calendar year.
Local governments must write, maintain and make emergency plans publicly available under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act using those reports of known hazards.
Mass casualties after toxic gas was released from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India —characterized by some as the world’s worst industrial disaster — spurred the first federal rules for such emergency planning in 1986.
Based on the amount of chemicals a facility reports under the federal reporting requirements, local businesses and other facilities have been categorized on a scale of “1” to “7,” with 1 being the smallest amounts reported and 7 the greatest.
Denton County’s local emergency planners used such reports to help complete a hazard vulnerability analysis in 2010, not only for ammonium nitrate but many other hazardous materials.
According to that report, Justin Seed is categorized as a “5” for ammonium nitrate, storing between 100,000 and 999,999 pounds.
Phone calls to Justin Seed Co. were not returned by press time Thursday.
At least 44 facilities statewide have reported large stores of at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, according to state records obtained by the The Dallas Morning News.
Wise County had four sites each reporting more than 100,000 pounds on site, the most sites of any county in Texas. Two of the sites in Alvord had the same address.
The facilities in Wise County use ammonium nitrate to manufacture explosives for industries such as mining and construction, site managers said.
An Austin Powder Central State official confirmed that the company has large quantities of ammonium nitrate on site, but the official would not confirm how much.
Buckley Powder Co. also wouldn’t disclose how much ammonium nitrate was currently on site or how much could be held.
At Orica USA, an official said the site has tanks that could hold up to 240,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate.
The nearest fire department to the sites is the Chico Fire Department, and an official there said each facility has emergency procedures filed with the department. The official said the explosion in West has spurred little discussion on how a similar emergency would be handled.
The Austin Powder spokesman directed all questions to the company’s corporate office in Ohio but said that there has been no change to operations since the explosion in West.
He said he expects new federal regulations to be passed in the coming months, similar to how changes happened after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Another 24 facilities in Texas reported having quantities less than the 10,000-pound threshold for mandatory government notification. However, The Dallas Morning News reported that the records were inconsistent and reflected only information that companies self-reported.
Other businesses may have ammonium nitrate in quantities less than the reporting threshold. Those that sell fertilizer directly to farmers and other customers are not required to report.
The University of North Texas reported storing ammonium nitrate at the university, according to the local 2010 report. The university’s reporting was categorized as a “3,” storing between 1,000 and 9,999 pounds.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.