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The catastrophic explosion in Beirut, Lebanon last week called again here in the US for tightening control over ammonium nitrate, or AN, a chemical compound used in some agricultural fertilizers.
Officials in Beirut believe the huge explosion, which killed more than 200 people and damaged half of the city, was likely an accident caused by fire and negligent storage of around 2,750 tons of the chemical.
In addition to agriculture and mining, AN was used in terrorist attacks from Oklahoma City to Baghdad. It’s very explosive. It is an ingredient of choice for improvised explosive devices and car bombs that killed numerous soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And the debacle in Beirut was certainly not shocking for the residents of the small Texan city of West with 2,900 inhabitants.
A fire in a fertilizer plant in 2013 ignited more than 250 tons of ammonium nitrate that was not properly stored in combustible wooden boxes. The explosion leveled or damaged more than 150 buildings. In addition, 15 people were killed, including 12 firefighters, almost all from local volunteer departments.
In the Morning Edition of NPR after the explosion, DL Wilson of the Texas Department of Public Safety described what he saw.
“I can tell you I was there,” he says. “I walked through the explosion area. I searched some houses tonight, massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.”
Given the amount of chemical present, the West Fertilizer Company should report its ammonium nitrate supply to the Federal Department of Homeland Security. According to federal officials, this was not the case. A state agency in Texas knew about the AN. However, this information could not be passed on to the DHS. A congressman later said in a federal hearing, “The DHS didn’t even know the facility existed until it exploded.”
It is precisely the confusion of federal and state agencies regulating ammonium nitrate – and the long-standing concern about a lack of clear coordination – that has experts re-alarmed.
At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, and the Department of Transportation and Agriculture all have levels of ammonium nitrate -Control.
Experts say this is a patchwork with dangerous loopholes.
“Why we continue to flirt with disasters with this material after 9/11 and Oklahoma City and West, Texas is a mystery to me,” says environmental consultant Rick Hind, an expert on chemical hazards and safety. Hind spent nearly three decades as the Legislative Director of Greenpeace in Washington, DC. He says federal oversight of the storage, transportation, processing and use of ammonium nitrate remains a bog of vague and slippery regulations to this day, despite repeated attempts to tighten the rules.
AN is relatively stable under the right conditions. But when AN is contaminated by dirt, certain types of wood, oil, or a myriad of other things, AN can become powerful explosives that today “remain largely invisible and underregulated due to the magic of the chemical and agricultural lobby, the fertilizer people”. “”
Hind says the explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call to finally tighten federal oversight.
“They say it’s stable,” says Hind. “But if you look at all of the rules … you can see that this stuff needs to be handled and monitored very, very carefully while it is being handled – and under constant review. And that is not happening.”
Critics say OSHA, EPA, and other federal agencies have consistently failed to adequately inspect the facilities where the chemical is stored. At the time of the West, Texas explosion, OSHA had not inspected the West Fertilizer Company in nearly 30 years.
“There are only a few OSHA inspections,” says Hind. “Depleted funds and litigation are now hampering their regulatory process.”
In its detailed report on the explosion, the Chemical Safety Board said West, Texas was hardly the only risky place.
“We highlighted the number of places AN is stored in facilities that haven’t been vetted,” says Vanessa Allen Sutherland, who led the CSB in the final phase of the investigation. “We’re showing the landscape in the United States is fraught with AN risk.”
Risks that are still out there.
After the explosion in the West, OSHA realized that American ammonium nitrate regulations were painfully out of date, given the possibility of accidents or terrorist attacks.
OSHA tried to close the so-called “retail exemption”, arguing that the definition of “retail” was dangerously vague. This “allowed facilities with large quantities of bulk materials to be considered” retail stores, “says a senior official on the US Education and Labor Committee, which oversees worker health and safety. He asked not to be named. Closing that loophole, the official said, would have strengthened oversight over hazardous chemicals.
However, the industry sued on the grounds that OSHA was not following due process for setting federal regulations. A federal court agreed. This industry victory meant that thousands of facilities storing large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals continued to be exempt from OSHA’s safety management guidelines. There is still “tremendous opposition from industry to covering ammonium nitrate under OSHA’s process safety management (PPP) standards,” the official said.
David Michaels led OSHA as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Safety and Health at Work during the Obama administration. Commenting on this and many other rules, he said that the chemical, fertilizer and agricultural lobbies “rejected any attempt to tighten the rules.”
Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational safety at George Washington University, says these industries have repeatedly successfully blocked enforcement of new safety regulations for AN. So the old rules, which Michaels describes as ridiculous and dangerous, remain in force to this day.
“They allow ammonium nitrate to be stored in wooden buildings, for example without sprinklers,” says Michaels. “This is currently allowed under the OSHA ammonium nitrate standards because OSHA has not updated this since OSHA started almost exactly 50 years ago. And it was an old standard back then.”
AN was removed from an EPA list of “highly dangerous” substances that were marked for special attention at the end of the Obama administration. The agency has issued a rule according to which, in theory, some institutions must consider safety and accident prevention. It is not clear that the rule is adequately enforced.
Several federal agencies overseeing ammonium nitrate declined NPR’s requests for interviews and to answer specific questions about current oversight.
An EPA spokeswoman said in an email: “Chemical Accident Prevention and Preparation is a priority for EPA. The agency has to comply with the Chemical Accident Prevention and Preparation of the Clean Air Act Section 112 (r) for national compliance -Initiative made. ”
In 2013, then-President Obama ordered federal agencies to band together and come up with proposals to include the handling and storage of AN in the 21st Century.
Following this order, OSHA began the lengthy process of changing its safety management standards for hazardous chemicals – including AN.
Environmental groups did not believe that the proposed options went far enough. The industry said they went too far.
But this reform process, according to former OSHA boss Michaels, came to a screeching halt under the Trump administration.
“We said ‘this is important’ and asked all of our stakeholders to weigh up. And of course, all of these activities were immediately stopped by President Trump. And so, all efforts to protect communities and workers in the event of an ammonium explosion just stopped,” said he.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has tried to reduce or reverse nearly 100 key environmental and climate regulations on the grounds that they are stifling businesses and the economy. These rollbacks include federal regulations on clean air, water, and toxic chemicals. Dozens of these lawsuits are currently being challenged in court. However, the attempted rollbacks have put even more pressure on states and industry to regulate themselves.
For their part, the agriculture and fertilizer lobbies argue that self-regulation, combined with current federal and state guidelines, is appropriate to prevent future disasters like Beirut or West, Texas.
“The rules are tough,” said Richard Gupton, senior vice president of public policy and legal advice for the Agricultural Retailers Association. “No accident has occurred in a facility that complies with applicable regulations. There are a number of (federal) regulations that ensure the safe storage, handling and transport of the product.”
Gupton points out that they have created an industry-led monitoring and inspection program called Responsible Ag and have voluntarily strengthened their own standards and protocols for AN storage
“We set up Responsible Ag to make sure these facilities function safely to protect employees and local communities,” says Gupton. “And we will be happy to work on updating the regulations – where necessary and where appropriate – but it has to go through a proper regulatory process.”
But monitoring groups voluntarily say AN self-regulation is barely enough.
Katherine Lemos, the current head of the Federal Chemical Safety Board, hopes the Beirut tragedy will spur new efforts to improve the storage and handling of the chemical, which her agency recommended several years ago in its report on the West, Texas disaster .
“We want to prevent a catastrophic explosion. That is preventable. We really have to move it forward. I think it’s critical. That’s our job,” says Lemos.
She points out that the US is still not adequately restricting the storage of large quantities of ammonium nitrate near schools, nursing homes, hospitals and homes.
Of the 19 safety recommendations made by the Chemical Safety Board following the West, Texas disaster, 12 have not yet been implemented.