At least 14 people were killed and more than 200 wounded Wednesday night in an explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Some residents of the small town remained missing Friday as industry experts and plant officials worked to determine the cause of the incident.
“There’s something not right in Texas,” Adrian Derousseau, Ottawa Coop general manager, said. “We don’t know all the facts, and we’re anxiously awaiting.”
Incidents like the West explosion can cause heightened worries among residents of towns like Ottawa, which have coop facilities that house potentially hazardous substances, Derousseau said. Such safety concerns and questions are understandable, he said.
“We take it so serious,” Derousseau said. “We’re the ones working directly with it. We have all the safety equipment built in, and we’re very comfortable with it.”
Of particular concern to some people, he said, are the anhydrous ammonia tanks at Ottawa Coop, 302 N. Main St., and on farms across the county. Misinformation gives anhydrous ammonia a bad rap, Derousseau said, because the tanks can’t explode on their own.
“Anhydrous will not explode,” Derousseau said. “What can explode, is if there was a fire and that fire got so hot near that tank, that the tank had a build up of enough pressure — then there could be an explosion.”
Ottawa Coop has many safety regulations, protocols and plans in place to reduce the likelihood of such an explosion occurring, he said.
Anhydrous ammonia tanks are equipped with multiple protective parts, including safety valves, relief valves and hoses to make sure storage and transportation are safe, he said.
All equipment on the tanks has to be up to date, he said. Many of the valves have expiration dates on them to keep them from being overused and posing a threat.
“These valves are expensive, but they have a date on them,” he said. “Even if you’ve never used them, at a certain date, you have to take them off and replace them. Especially the relief valves.”
If equipment isn’t current when the Kansas Department of Agriculture shows up to do an inspection, companies are red flagged, fined and become unable to operate until they replace the equipment, he said.
“There are some plants out there that don’t take safety seriously,” Derousseau said. “They don’t keep things updated and they get put out of service.”
The Ottawa Coop recently had its inspection for 2013 and every tank at every location was in whole compliance, he said.
“The KDA gets stricter and stricter every year,” Derousseau said. “We put more and more safety equipment on [the tanks] every year.”
What is it?
Anhydrous ammonia is a fertilizer used by farmers and is injected into the soil to bolster crop growth, Derousseau said.
“It’s 82 percent concentration, stored in a pressurized tank in a liquid form,” he said. “It’s not a chemical. They constantly call it a chemical. It’s not a chemical, it’s a fertilizer.
The anhydrous ammonia tanks are only filled 80 percent to 85 percent with liquid, leaving the other 15 percent for vapor, Alan Radcliffe, Franklin County emergency management director, said. When a tank of anhydrous ammonia becomes heated, it shoots off relief valves to relieve pressure.
“If you have a fire that occurred and it’s impending on the tank, on the upper portion of that tank, that can cause a release,” Radcliffe said. “During the past summer, the temperature got high enough at the co-op, and a tank had been filled too much, so the valve popped off.”
The most lethal part of anhydrous is what could happen if the vapor is ingested or inhaled, Radcliffe said. When inhaled, the effects could be deadly.
“If you get it in your eyes, it could blind you,” he said. “If you inhale enough of it, it can cause swelling in the throat and lungs and it could kill you.”
Anhydrous is something that needs to be handled with care and extensive training, Derousseau said. Everyone handling anhydrous at the co-op must be certified.
“All of our people are trained in anhydrous protocol, safety and procedures,” he said. “The state of Kansas puts on training all the time. You have to be certified, and all of our people are well trained.”
In the event of an explosion, like the one at the West Fertilizer plant, Derousseau said, emergency plans are in place. The state’s department of agriculture requires a complete program.
“We have different requirements that we follow, including where our gathering points are,” he said. “We would never go back into a facility [if an explosion] would happen.”
The Dallas Morning News obtained a copy of the West Fertilizer’s internal safety review for fire or explosive risks. “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one,” according to the Washington Post. The first responders who hit the scene in West were volunteer firefighters, and their familiarity with the plant’s safety protocols was unknown, according to media reports.
“We don’t know how much training that volunteer fire department had to deal with a response to the fertilizer plant,” Radcliffe said. “We don’t know if they had any sort of process in place there.”
With a large explosion, the majority of the anhydrous ammonia from a plant like the one in West likely would burn up in the blast, Radcliffe said, causing no immediate concern for public health. With older plants and its surrounding buildings, however, the threat of asbestos is more of a concern.
“In those older buildings, you have the threat and possibility of asbestos,” he said. “When you’re removing that type of debris you want to have the proper breathing protection.”
The health concerns from such an explosion shouldn’t just worry members of West, Radcliffe said, but be used as a means of preparedness in the event such a deadly event occurs elsewhere.
“Looking at the damages there, you’re going to have some household hazardous waste,” he said. “Also, with all the debris and pieces of housing material all over, the threat of tetanus is very real. You hope people are up to date on their shots because there will be a lot of that stuff lying around.”
Derousseau said he doesn’t take the incident in West lightly. Understanding and respecting the fertilizer being used locally, as well as the related safety concerns, are important, he said.
“We’ve always dealt with this environment and taken it very seriously,” he said. “We have a good safety record, and I want to keep it that way.”