STR / AFP via Getty Images
The catastrophic explosion in Beirut, Lebanon last week continued to call on the US to increase surveillance for ammonium nitrate or AN, a chemical compound used in some agricultural fertilizers.
Officials in Beirut believe that the massive blast left more than 200 people dead and half the city damaged, possibly a fire accident and negligently storing about 2,750 tons of chemicals.
In addition to cultivation and mining, AN has been used in terrorist attacks from Oklahoma City to Baghdad. It is very explosive. It was a component of choice for impromptu detonators and car bombs that killed a lot of soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And the fall of Beirut certainly didn’t shock the inhabitants of the small western Texas town – population 2,900.
A fertilizer plant fire in 2013 there burned more than 250 tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in flammable wooden boxes. The explosion leveled or damaged more than 150 buildings. It also killed 15 people, including 12 firefighters, nearly all of them from local volunteer boards.
On NPR’s Morning Edition following the blast, Texas Department of Public Safety DL Wilson described what he saw.
“I can tell you that I was there,” he said. “I came across the blast area. I was looking for some houses earlier tonight, which are massive, like Iraq, like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.”
With the amount of chemicals in hand, West Fertilizer Company had to report its ammonium nitrate stockpiles to the federal Department of Homeland Security. According to federal officials, it did not. A state agency in Texas already knew about AN. But cannot share that information with DHS. As one congressman later put on a federal hearing, “DHS didn’t even know the plant existed until it exploded.”
It was exactly the mess of federal and state agencies regulating ammonium nitrate – and long-standing concerns about a lack of apparent coordination – that once again set the bells for experts. newspaper.
On the federal side, Department of Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Agency, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Guns and Explosives, Chinese Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Division Ky as well as the Department of Transport and Agriculture are under the supervision of ammonium nitrate.
Experts say it is a patchwork of dangerous gaps.
“Why we, after 9/11 and Oklahoma City and West, Texas, continue to suffer from material disasters,” said Rick Hind, a safety and chemical hazard specialist. this. Hind spent nearly three decades as the legislative director of Greenpeace in Washington, DC.
AN is relatively stable under the right conditions. But when contaminated with dirt, some woods, oil or a ton of other things, Hind says, AN can become extremely powerful explosives that today are “barely visible and controlled by the of the chemical and agricultural corridors, manure people. “
Hind says the Beirut blast should be a wake-up call to finally tighten federal oversight.
“They say it’s stable,” Hind said. “But when you look at what all the rules are … you can see these things have to be handled very, very carefully and monitored while it’s being processed – and constantly inspected. And the thing. That didn’t happen. “
Critics say OSHA, EPA and other federal agencies have repeatedly failed to adequately inspect chemical storage facilities. At the time of the West, Texas boom, OSHA had not inspected the West Fertilizer company for almost 30 years.
“OSHA inspections are few and far between,” says Hind, “with exhausted funding and lawsuits now hampering their legal process.”
In its detailed report on the explosion, the Chemical Safety Commission said West, Texas was hardly the only risk site.
“We have specified the number of ANs stored in the facilities that have not been reviewed,” said Vanessa Allen Sutherland, CSB executive at the end of the investigation. “We show that the whole United States is awash with AN threats”
The risks are still there.
After the explosion in the West, OSHA realized that the US ammonium nitrate rules were painfully outdated, with the potential for an accident or a terrorist attack.
OSHA has attempted to close the so-called “retail waiver” on the argument that the definition of ‘retail’ is dangerously vague. That “allows facilities with large quantities of bulk material to be considered ‘retail’,” says a senior aide to the US House of Representatives Labor and Education Commission, which oversees health and safety. of the workers said. He asked not to be named. The official said, sealing the loophole will strengthen monitoring of dangerous chemicals.
But industry sued the argument that OSHA did not follow the proper federal rule-building procedure. A federal court agreed. Victory in that industry means that thousands of facilities that store large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals will remain exempt from safety management guidelines set by OSHA. “There is still a major industry opposition to the use of ammonium nitrate under OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard,” the official said.
David Michaels led OSHA as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health in the Obama Administration. According to that regulation and many others, the chemical, fertilizer and agricultural lobby “opposes any attempt to strengthen the regulations.”
Now a professor of occupational health and environment at George Washington University, Michaels says those disciplines have repeatedly prevented the enforcement of new safety provisions for AN. So the old rules, which Michaels called ridiculous and dangerous, still apply to this day.
“They allow ammonium nitrate to be stored in wooden buildings without water jets,” Michaels said. “That is currently allowed under OSHA’s ammonium nitrate standard because OSHA hasn’t updated that since OSHA started almost 50 years ago. And that’s an old standard.”
The AN was removed from the EPA’s list of “highly hazardous” substances flagged for special attention by the end of the Obama administration. The agency has issued a rule that, in theory, will require a number of facilities for safety review and accident prevention. It is not clear that the rule is being fully enforced.
Several federal ammonium nitrate monitoring agencies rejected NPR’s request for interview and answered specific questions about current surveillance.
In an email, an EPA spokesperson said: “Chemical accident prevention and preparation is an EPA priority. The agency has complied with the chemical accident prevention and preparation provisions in Clean Air Act, Section 112 (r) a National Compliance Initiative. ”
In 2013, President Obama ordered federal agencies to gather together and come up with proposals to bring the handling and storage of AN into 21.st century.
Under that executive order, OSHA began a long process to change safety management standards for hazardous chemicals – including AN.
The environmental groups do not think that the proposed options have gone far enough. The industry says they have gone too far.
But that reform process, noted Michaels, the former head of OSHA, stopped under the Trump administration.
“We say ‘this is important’ and we ask all involved parties to consider. And of course, all of those activities are immediately put aside by President Trump. And so, every effort. The force aimed at protecting communities and workers in the event of ammonium nitrate explosions simply stopped, “he said.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has reduced or undone nearly 100 key environmental and climate regulations, arguing that they hold back business and the economy. Those obstacles include federal regulations governing clean air, water and hazardous chemicals. Those dozens of actions are currently being challenged in court. But turn-back efforts put even greater pressure on states and industry to self-regulate.
For its part, the fertilizer and agricultural lobbying argues that self-regulation is sufficient, when combined with current federal and state guidelines, to prevent future disasters such as Beirut or West, Texas.
“There are tight rules in place,” said Richard Gupton, senior vice president of public policy and advisor to the Association of Agricultural Retailers. “There have been no accidents at a facility that complies with applicable regulations. There are a number of (federal) regulations to ensure the safe storage, handling and transportation of products.”
Gupton points out that they have created an industry-led monitoring and inspection program called Ag Responsible and has voluntarily strengthened their own standards and protocols to host AN
“We created a Responsible Agency to ensure these facilities are operating safely and securely to protect employees and local communities,” said Gupton. “And we will be willing to work to update the rules – when needed and where appropriate – but it needs to go through a proper rule-building process.”
But the monitoring groups say AN’s voluntary, self-regulation is not enough.
Katherine Lemos, the current head of the federal Chemical Safety Board, hopes the Beirut tragedy will spur new efforts to improve chemical storage and handling here, something her agency has recommended a few years ago in their report on the disaster in West, Texas.
“We are working on a way to prevent the catastrophic explosion. This is something that can be prevented. We really need to push it. I think that’s important,” Lemos said. “, Lemos said.
She points out that the US has not yet adequately restrained the storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate near schools, nursing homes, hospitals and homes.
Of the 19 safety recommendations made by the Texas Department of Chemical Safety Committee after the disaster, 12 have not yet been implemented to this day.