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April 23rd, 2013

Fertilizer Plant’s Ammonium Nitrate Stores Should Have Been Overseen By Homeland Security

The West fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday, killing at least 14 people, was storing 1,350 times the volume of ammonium nitrate needed to trigger U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) safety oversight.

The company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, had not informed DHS about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, according to a person familiar with DHS operations. Ammonium nitrate is a material that can be used in bomb-making, and not informing DHS left one of the principal regulators of the substance unaware of the existing danger.

Reports must be made to DHS by fertilizer plants and depots that hold 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate. According to filings with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the plant had 270 tons of the potentially explosive substance stored last year, but those filings were not shared with DHS.

Plant officials have not returned calls seeking comment on the handling of chemicals and reporting practices. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), a ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, as well as several safety experts are questioning whether beaurocratic gridlock or incomplete disclosure lead to the disaster.

“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” Rep. Thompson said in a statement Friday. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”

DHS can fine or shut down fertilizer operations that fail to report significant volumes of hazardous substances, said a person familiar with the agency’s  monitoring operations.

Experts and local officials suspect the blast this week stemmed from stores of ammonium nitrate that caught fire, though investigations are still underway.

Critics say the patchwork oversight in reporting, permitting and safety programs that the West fertilizer plant was subject to makes thorough regulation difficult. West Fertilizer was subject to permitting, safety and reporting programs spread across at least seven state and federal agencies.

The Texas industrial accident attorneys at Schechter, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P., Accident & Injury Lawyers are available to help victims of the West fertilizer plant explosion. Contact us now to learn your rights.

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