State legislators consider new regulations on ammonium nitrate storage


Piles of rubble, such as the remains of this house on Jerry Mashek Drive, still exist a year after the fertilizer plant explosion in West. New regulations for ammonium nitrate storage are being considered to prevent any future incidents. 

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

As a result of a fertilizer plant explosion in West exactly one year ago, state politicians are considering new regulations for ammonium nitrate storage in fireproof bins or by installing fire sprinklers.

Ammonium nitrate is often used in agriculture as a high-nitrogen fertilizer. When exposed to heat, the chemical becomes explosive. Investigators confirmed ammonium nitrate as the material that exploded in West. 

The State House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety heard recommendations from several state agencies and officials Monday. State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who is also chairman of the committee, said he asked state agencies to work together to form testimonies and recommendations to the committee.

“The goal is to give some direction, with [the committee] support to the state agencies on coming up with a very specific plan for West,” Pickett said. “We will be looking at how to go forward and try to keep these situations from happening in the future.” 

Pickett said he would like to draft legislation by the end of this summer for the 84th Texas State Legislature commencing in January. However, Pickett said he did not necessarily want to file legislation to initiate a statewide fire code but, rather, wants narrow legislation on the issue.

State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said there are nearly 100 ammonium nitrate facilities in the state. Connealy said approximately half of those facilities store ammonium nitrate in wooden, flammable buildings similar to the West Fertilizer Co. facility.

“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” Connealy said. “If you want to keep ammonium nitrate in a combustible facility, you need to put fire sprinklers in there.”

Connealy said investigators still don’t know the cause of the initial fire. For rural areas, it is more difficult to implement sprinklers within facilities because these facilities typically don’t have water distribution systems, according to Connealy, who said the best way to prevent another explosion is to isolate the ammonium nitrate by storing it in a noncombustible bin made of concrete, stone or metal, and keeping vegetation away from it.

“Ammonium nitrate is pretty stable in its normal state, and as long as you keep fire and those things that could catch on fire away from it so it doesn’t travel and get to that bin, you’ve largely fixed the problem,” Connealy said.

Connealy said he recommended that agricultural businesses be given a three-year time frame to comply and accumulate funds to pay for the equipment. 

Williamson County Grain in Taylor, Texas once delivered and stored ammonia nitrate but stopped doing so in July because of the West explosion, according to manager Joe Mueck. The facility is near a school, which is part of a greater residential area.

Pickett said he worries people will stop working to regulate ammonium nitrate storage in the future.

“I think that is our responsibility and our duty,” Pickett said. “Knowing this committee and the makeup of this committee, I think we’ve got enough people here that can give us a perspective to do something that makes sense and keep the business acumen alive.”