PHOENIX — One year after a fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people, injured hundreds and devastated the town of West, Texas, significant questions remain about the safety and security of hazardous chemical storage facilities across the U.S. and in Arizona.
The 2013 explosion at West Chemical and Fertilizer Co. “should never have occurred,” the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said April 22 after it released the preliminary results of its investigation. The probe found sweeping regulatory shortfalls in the storage of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound widely used in explosives and fertilizers.
Similar ammonium nitrate facilities exist throughout Arizona — as do gaps in government oversight and communication with first responders, both of which were cited as contributing factors in the Texas blast, the ABC15 Investigators and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting found.
This includes Arizona’s largest ammonium nitrate storage facility, Apache Nitrogen Products Inc., which is located southeast of Tucson in an unincorporated area known as St. David. It houses more than 80 million pounds of the chemical but didn’t disclose, as is required by law, its list of hazardous materials to local firefighters.
Volunteer firefighters at the St. David Fire District said they don’t know which chemicals — or in what quantities — are stored at the facility.
There’s a lot emergency response officials here don’t know, and it’s unclear how many or how well ammonium nitrate storage and manufacturing companies are regulated in Arizona, ABC15 and AZCIR reporters found.
State officials concede that they don’t know how many facilities fall under an agricultural retail exemption for fertilizer distributors. This means they are exempt from filing chemical inventory reports and emergency plans with regulatory agencies, or from disclosing their locations to the public. State officials also don’t know how many facilities are ignoring requirements to report the chemicals.
“There isn’t any political will here to make people comply with environmental regulations even if they’re for everyone’s health and safety,” said Steve Brittle, who leads an environmentally focused nonprofit, Don’t Waste Arizona Inc., which advocates for better compliance of chemical facilities in Arizona. “There’s an anti-regulatory attitude here that is pervasive.”
Federal and state laws require facilities storing dangerous chemicals to file chemical inventory and emergency planning reports with emergency response personnel. The public has a right to know where these facilities are and what hazards they contain, the laws state. But because companies selling ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers to consumers are exempt from these laws, officials can’t regulate them.
It was deficiencies such as this lack of available information and absent regulatory oversight that safety board investigators said led to the Texas ammonium nitrate blast.
“(The Texas explosion) resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, in his April 22 statement.
ABC15 and AZCIR spent three months investigating how Arizona regulates hazardous chemical storage facilities and whether the necessary plans are in place to protect residents and businesses from a similar disaster. At the center of this investigation were efforts to identify Arizona facilities that manufacture and store ammonium nitrate and whether that information is accessible to the public.
Attempts to obtain a comprehensive list of Arizona fertilizer facilities through public records requests were denied by the Arizona Emergency Response Commission, the agency tasked with managing information about companies that store dangerous chemicals. The agency said it could not release the list because state and federal laws dictate that members of the public can only request information for specific facilities.
“We do have a responsibility to the public,” said Mark Howard, director of the Arizona Emergency Response Commission. “But we also have a responsibility to the security and the business itself.”
Howard said the commission adopted language from the federal law, which includes a section for public disclosure of information related to chemical facilities. It states that information about hazardous chemical company locations and the amounts of chemicals stored can only be released after requesting the information from a specific facility.
“I look at it more from a security standpoint that, really, I don’t want to make it any easier for the criminals and for the terrorists to have access to this information,” Howard said.
Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act
Congress passed in 1986 the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which was designed to help communities and first responders plan for emergencies involving hazardous materials. The act mandates oversight through federal, state and local governments. It requires companies that store hazardous materials to report annually the amount and type of storage for chemicals to all levels of government. This includes city fire departments, local emergency planning committees and state emergency response commissions.
The law states that the information also must be shared with the public, upon request, so that residents of communities surrounding these facilities are aware of the potential dangers.
The list of companies includes fertilizer manufacturers, farms, gas stations, water treatment plants, pool supply stores and grocery stores, among others. Companies are required to file a report if the chemicals they store exceed certain thresholds, which range anywhere from 500 pounds to 10,000 pounds depending on the chemical.
But companies that distribute ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer in retail settings aren’t required to file a report if the company sells directly to consumers. The agricultural retail exemption allows a company to avoid state and federal regulations for disclosing this information.
Howard said he doesn’t know how many fertilizer facilities fall under the retail exemption in Arizona because there’s no way to track or identify that information. Whether a facility cites the exemption isn’t known unless a company files a report to the commission for other chemicals.
“In any system there are holes that exist, ” Howard said. “It is totally incumbent upon the owners or operators of those facilities out there to know what are the laws.”
Records elusive for Arizona fertilizer facilities
ABC15 and AZCIR reporters independently researched fertilizer facilities here through licensing requirements and company website listings, then submitted public records requests for those facilities to the Arizona Emergency Response Commission.
Of the 73 fertilizer facilities reporters were able to identify in Arizona, records from the commission showed that only 17 reported that they had hazardous chemicals. And of those, only four reported ammonium nitrate.
Apache Nitrogen Products Inc. stores the largest amount of ammonium nitrate in Arizona, according to available public records. It manufactures products containing the chemical, which are used primarily for farming and mining applications. The facility is located just outside of Benson, Ariz., in an unincorporated area known as St. David.
Apache Nitrogen has more than 80 million pounds of ammonium nitrate, according to its 2013 report filed with the state’s emergency response commission. This is in addition to more than 18 million pounds of anhydrous ammonia and more than 120,000 pounds of diesel and unleaded regular gasoline, among other chemicals.
The closest emergency responder to Apache Nitrogen is the St. David Fire District, a volunteer agency. Firefighters there said they don’t have the necessary paperwork from Apache Nitrogen, which includes chemical inventory lists. The company only filed this information with Arizona Emergency Response Commission.
“A lot of these (chemical inventory lists) are hard to come by,” said Jason Todd, a volunteer firefighter and public outreach representative for the St. David Fire District. “You’re limited in what information, how much information and how often you can get it. It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes.”
Facilities are required by law to provide chemical inventories to local fire departments for emergency planning purposes and so that first responders know what’s inside a chemical storage facility. Todd said he and the district didn’t know this information was available through current laws.
This lack of oversight and communication with local firefighters corresponds to issues cited in the Chemical Safety Board’s investigation into the Texas explosion, in which more than half of those killed were first responders.
But according to Apache Nitrogen spokesman Rob Stevenson, the St. David Fire District in Arizona does not have the capability to respond to a hazardous chemical incident. He said Apache Nitrogen has its own hazardous material emergency response team, which is located within the plant.
Stevenson said that because the facility is situated in a rural setting, the closest public fire departments with a hazmat response team are located in Sierra Vista, Ariz. The driving distance from Sierra Vista to Apache Nitrogen is more than 35 miles.
Those departments are the Fry Fire District and the Sierra Vista Fire Department, which have one cooperative unit trained to deal with hazardous materials.
Stevenson said that the fire departments in Sierra Vista — and Apache Nitrogen — are members of the Cochise County Local Emergency Planning Committee, which is responsible for maintaining emergency response plans for the area. The departments, he stated in an email, “would have access to any and all applicable (chemical inventory) reporting information for Apache Nitrogen Products Inc.”
Randy Redmond, fire chief for the Sierra Vista Fire Department, said the department gets Apache Nitrogen’s emergency response plan annually and that they “review it as needed.”
Redmond said the cooperative hazardous materials response team, which includes firefighters from the Fry Fire District, trains with Apache’s on-site team every 12 to 18 months.
Todd said Apache Nitrogen reached out to his volunteer fire agency two months ago to conduct joint hazardous material trainings for its facility. The training has yet to happen, but Stevenson stated in an email that the company is “aiming for fall 2014.”
Arizona State Fire Marshal Bob Barger, who is responsible for regulating public building fire codes across Arizona, said it is the responsibility of local fire departments to regulate private sector facilities and know which ones are storing hazardous chemicals.
“We have a good handle on what’s out there and where it’s at,” Barger said. “From a fire prevention and enforcement side, it’s imperative that we get in and inspect the facilities.”
But Barger said facility inspections by fire departments are not a state requirement.
Communication, oversight lacking with local fire departments
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s lead investigator, Johnnie Banks, cited what he called a patchwork of state and federal regulations with huge gaps, which include the need for better oversight of private facilities by local fire departments.
These same problems exist in Arizona, according to Brittle, who advocates for regulatory compliance of chemical storage facilities through his nonprofit environmental organization, Don’t Waste Arizona Inc.
“The emergency planning system here, the state emergency response commission and the local emergency planning committees have all abrogated their duties and said, ‘We’re going to let the local responders handle it,’” Brittle said. “Well, so much for emergency planning. (Local) fire departments don’t really do that.”
Brittle’s nonprofit promotes increased enforcement of hazardous material reporting through advocacy and litigation. He’s filed dozens of lawsuits against Arizona companies for failing to disclose hazardous chemicals and has sent hundreds of letters warning other companies.
Brittle said many such facilities don’t know they are required to file reports with government agencies and that those responsible for enforcing these requirements don’t do it.
“It’s been a long-time problem here in Arizona and it’s had its consequences,” Brittle said. “We’ve had chemical fires, we’ve had chemical spills, we’ve had enormous disruptions in peoples’ lives, economic impacts, and no one seems to care about that.”
Since the blast one year ago in Texas, emergency management personnel there have started addressing regulatory shortfalls by putting more facility inspectors on the ground and visiting ammonium nitrate storage facilities across the state. They’ve also created a public website so residents can search for hazardous material storage facilities by ZIP code.
Officials there worked with the Texas Legislature to balance the information needs of the public with the security concerns of facilities that store hazardous materials.
Banks said the safety board found 1,351 facilities that store ammonium nitrate across the U.S., and that research is pending about how close communities are to these facilities.
“There can be little doubt that West (Texas) is not alone and that communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity to communities,” Banks said.