One year ago Thursday, a fire in a wood-frame building at the West Fertilizer Co. caused about 30 tons of ammonium nitrate to explode. The explosion killed 15 people in West, a farming town near Waco, and caused more than $100 million in property damage.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has been leading the effort to try to prevent another deadly disaster like the one in West. He’s been meeting with owners of fertilizer businesses to discuss their handling of ammonium nitrate, and in December he began touring dozens of towns statewide with fertilizer facilities to preach “best practices” for safely storing ammonium nitrate.
We met with Connealy last week. Excerpts of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow:
American-Statesman: The anniversary of the West fertilizer explosion is upon us. What lessons did we learn from West?
Chris Connealy: We’ve got to keep fire from ammonium nitrate. The problem is, when you have ammonium nitrate in a combustible structure, you’re not going to keep it from fire unless you have fire sprinklers, or you make the ammonium nitrate storage bin out of concrete, masonry, metal, something that doesn’t burn.
Certainly when you talk about fire sprinklers, those are costly, and in many of these places that store ammonium nitrate, they don’t have a water distribution system. And these are businesses that operate on a very slim margin. You need to consider what is the least costly approach to still follow best practices. And to me building a concrete structure, say for example, is much more cost effective. And I’m not talking about the whole building. It’s just for the ammonium nitrate.
We’ve also done quite a bit of research to identify where ammonium nitrate is stored. Presently we’re at 96 facilities. Of the 96 facilities, 46 store ammonium nitrate in combustible construction — wood-frame structures that can catch fire.
What is the status of the investigation into the fire that caused the explosion?
The fire investigation is still ongoing. We’re still following leads. We still have three issues in play: the 120-volt electrical system, the battery-powered golf cart and incendiary.
Are you hopeful that you’ll find the cause of the fire?
I’m hopeful. I’m not guaranteeing that we’ll get there. We know where the fire originated, in the seed room. The fire traveled due to combustibles in the room — it was a wood-frame building and there were all types of wood products and paper that could catch fire. The fire traveled to the ammonium nitrate bin in the room. The bin was made out of plywood and lumber. That caught on fire. It made the ammonium nitrate unstable.
Then when the wood structure that supported the roof burned away — there actually were two explosions in West. We found this during our investigation. When the roof collapses into the pile of ammonium nitrate, that was a shock factor, basically like a detonator. When the roof collapsed, you see an explosion occurring, then milliseconds later you saw the big explosion.
Your office is limited in what it can do to enforce safety. So you’re relying on your powers of persuasion to get facilities to change voluntarily. How would you rate those powers so far?
It’s not from a lack of effort, but has anyone moved the ammonium nitrate to a noncombustible structure or put sprinklers in? No.
Do you think success will come?
Well, I think that’s what the Legislature is considering. We’re not trying to put these fertilizer facilities out of business. Just the opposite. We’re trying to keep them in business. The West fertilizer plant is gone. Those jobs are gone. The farmers are having to go much farther to get the fertilizer they need. So we’re trying to convince them this is self-preservation.
Do you have hope the Legislature will require some changes?
I feel very good that there’s going to be something coming out that is going to reduce the risk exposure significantly. That’s above my decision-making, though. That’s a policy issue. But we are being tasked along with other state agencies as a resource to help legislators formulate that public policy.
How concerned are you about the possibility of another West?
There are a number of potential Wests out there. Not to be alarmist, but because 46 facilities store ammonium nitrate in wood-frame construction, a similar construction that West had, if a fire were to happen inside that structure, it could travel to the ammonium nitrate bin and do the exact same thing. I think it’s very important that we find means of addressing that to prevent another West. That’s our sole mission here, to prevent another West.