In 2013, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas caught fire and the flames reacted with the ammonia stored at the plant to create a massive explosion. As a result, the entire plant went up in flames and an explosion registered at a 2.1 magnitude, leveling houses near the industrial site. While the tragedy is massive and the town of West has been devastated by the loss of as many as 40 citizens, the West fertilizer plant was unaware that there was present danger at the plant in months preceding the event.
In fact, a report by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the fertilizer plant was listed as a location with no risk of fire or explosion. The West Fertilizer Company reported having 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand but said that there were no fire or explosive risks at the plant. The reports claimed that the highest danger that could occur at the plant would be a 10-minute release of anhydrous ammonia which would not kill or injury anyone because the ammonia would dissipate into the air. The second worse danger at the plant on the report was a possible leak from a broken hose that was used to transfer the ammonia from one tank to another. The public safety officials and the Environmental Protection Agency wrote that this still was not an action that would cause any injuries.
According to the documents about the plant, the facility workers claimed that there were no other dangerous chemicals at the location and that the company had implemented proper safety rules and was up to code. Advisories on safe handling of the ammonia say that that the chemical is not even considered a serious explosion risk when it is in the air as a gas. It is considered slightly combustible, but certainly not regarded as an immediate threat. Chemists say that ammonia can explode when it is at certain concentrations inside a container.
Despite claims that the fertilizer plant was not a threat to the town of West, the West Fertilizer Co. has a history that should be noted:
- 1962 –West Fertilizer was founded and began supplying g farmers and ranchers in Texas with the chemicals that they needed to grow a variety of crops including corn, hay, grain, wheat, and oats.
- 2004 –The West Fertilizer plant failed to update their risk management plan as it was due. Later, the EPA would declare that the plant had poor employee training records and failed to document hazards that occurred at the plan. As well, they would notice that the plant didn't have a written maintenance program.
- 2006 – Documents show that the West Fertilizer Company plant was cited for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit. When they finally obtained a permit, the plant was required to install a spray system that would guard against ammonia leaks. Also this year, the EPA fined the company $2,300 for failing to update their risk management plan in a timely manner. That same year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated the West Fertilizer plant when the received complaints of the strong scent of ammonia emanating from the plant. Locals were worried that there may have been a lead at the plant that created the smell.
- 2007 – A TCEQ inspector noted that the plant was dangerously close to two schools and within 350 of a residency. While this raised concern, the plant was noted to have a "low impact" potential so nothing was done about the situation.
- 2011 –This year, the company created a safety plan and filed it with the EPA. The EPA then declared that West Fertilizer complied with all regulations. The plan declared that the fertilizer plant posed no fire or explosive risk and that the worst-case scenario that could happen at the location was a leak of ammonia that would not be enough to cause any injury or fatalities.
- 2013 – Earlier that year, the West Fertilizer plant caused a school evacuation at West Intermediate School when there was a fire at the industrial site. According to a memo from the West ISD Superintendent, the school officials had no prior warning of the industrial fire. Later researched showed that this was actually a controlled burn of pallets and brush on the property, and was not a concern.
Reports say that West Fertilizer never posed much of a problem to locals in West and the company was relatively free of violations and concerns. NBC News reported that the company was well-regarded by the locals and no one seemed to complain about the plant because it had never caused significant issues in the past. A nearby fertilizer producer told NBC that the plant was a part of the community for a number of years and the people who work there are "good guys." This local says that the plant has been able to help a lot of farmers in the area and that the workers there have a lot of knowledge on new products in the industry.