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Ammonium Nitrate Was Present At West Explosion Site

BJ Austin

During a tour of West today, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn confirmed that ammonium nitrate was found at the site of the explosion.  It’s a fertilizer component also used to make bombs.

The information comes as federal and state agencies arrive in West to investigate the cause of the tragedy.

  Floyd Wolf, like many of his neighbors, was surprised to learn the explosion that tore apart their community may have come from West Fertilizer.  After all, the company had been there for decades, sitting near their school and homes.

“You know it had been there for 50 years,” said Wolf.  “You grew up with it so you didn’t think anything about it.”

But residents are thinking about it now, especially as they learn more about the company compliance record and the nature of the chemicals kept on site.

In 2006 the state required West Chemical and Fertilizer to get permits after investigating a complaint about odor at the plant. 

That same year the EPA fined the company $2,300 for not having an updated risk management plan and for poor employee training records.

Then last summer another federal agency-  the U.S. Hazardous Materials Safety Administration- fined West Fertilizer more than $5,000 for planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without following a security plan, and for having ammonia tanks that were not properly labeled.

Speculation on the cause of the explosion initially focused on anhydrous ammonia, which is gas that becomes liquefied when stored under pressure. 

UTA Chemistry Professor Sandy Dasgupta says it’s not usually explosive, but if a fire started near the anhydrous ammonia, the heat could have caused it to expand in the tank.

“When the tank exceeds its containment temperature it would explode.  The gas would come out and mix with the fire then the ammonia would explode,” said Dasgupta.

The newly confirmed presence of ammonium nitrate presents the possibility of an even bigger blast.  It’s very volatile if heated, and has been used as an oxidizing agent in homemade bombs like the one that killed more than 160 people outside an Oklahoma City courthouse, 18 years ago today. 

“Ammonium nitrate can go off all on its own if it’s heated to the right temperature.  If you had a fire for some other reason and you had ammonium nitrate in it, it would be almost impossible to put out,” Dasgupta said.

Professor Dasgupta says he doesn’t know exactly what happened in this case but he’s concerned about old plants that are grandfathered into populated locations, especially in small towns like West.

“I wouldn’t want to have that plant in my residential area,” he said.  “That’s for sure.”

He hopes the tragedy in West is a wake-up call for other communities to take a look at industrial sites that have just “always been there.” 

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.