NEWS
West, Texas: 2 Years Later - 1
Todd Neeley DTN Staff Reporter
Mon Apr 20, 2015 12:17 PM CDT
(Page 1 of 3)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Chris Connealy may be road weary from hosting 63 meetings in 66 counties that included touring 2,106 ammonium nitrate facilities across Texas in the past two years.

Evidence of the April 17, 2013, explosion in West, Texas, was still apparent three months later when this picture was taken. While the community has cleaned up and rebuilt in the past two years, work continues to be done at the state level to avoid such disasters happening again. (DTN photo by Todd Neeley)

Yet, looking into the faces of the families who lost loved ones in the tragic explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013, has brought perspective for the Texas fire marshal.

Connealy vows: Never again.

"It's critical volunteer firefighters have access to information, that they take away those lessons and take away those risks," he told DTN in an interview. "That's how we honor the great sacrifice of those firefighters and the community. That's how we pay our respects. Families of the victims want the information shared ... I'm hopeful we wouldn't have the same outcome if there is another West."

Ten of the 14 people who died at West were volunteer firefighters -- most seemed unaware there was little they could do to combat a fire near a relatively large stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the 14-acre West Fertilizer Co. property. A state investigation concluded firefighters would have been better off to walk away from the blaze.

The explosion that destroyed numerous homes, a nursing home and school near the facility occurred when 28 to 34 tons of about 60 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in the warehouse on the West Fertilizer Co. property.

Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he and other lawmakers have been working since that day to keep at the forefront the issues that led to the disaster.

"We were very, very lucky," he said during an April 7, 2015, hearing before the Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee, testifying on behalf of legislation he authored in response to West.

"There was a whole ammonium nitrate tanker car that hadn't been put into that bin yet. In another day in the same situation, it could have even been worse than it was," he said. "My fear is after the second anniversary we will start dwindling its attention, and we will end up back to where we were before -- and that's just kind of lax."

Two years of legislative inquiry found communities, firefighters, state government officials and emergency management knew very little about the state's vast ammonium nitrate stockpiles. Volunteer firefighters had little or no training or knowledge of how to handle fires involving ammonium nitrate. There was no system in place to assure facilities storing ammonium nitrate were taking proper precautions.

The Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate have key pieces of legislation currently making their way through the legislature -- including two similar bills sitting in the House committee -- designed to fix many of the issues coming to light since West. A third identical bill has been authored in the state senate.

IMPROVED COMMUNICATION

Lawmakers aim to improve communication among state agencies, volunteer firefighters and communities about ammonium nitrate stockpiles; give the state fire marshal and volunteer departments across the state authority to conduct facility inspections to gauge ammonium nitrate safety; and provide rulemaking authority to state officials on fire safety at ammonium nitrate facilities.

Since 2013, the Texas State Chemist completed a rule change that requires ammonium nitrate to be stored at least 30 feet away from combustible materials. A federal investigation into the disaster found ammonium nitrate was stored in a wood-framed building near seed -- both combustible materials. In fact, most ammonium nitrate stockpiles are stored in wood structures.

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