Chemical Safety One Year After Explosion in West, TX

thumbnail environmentLast year, a fire set off a tragic explosion at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas. The explosion killed and injured many people and severely damaged nearby houses and other buildings, including schools. While the investigation that followed was unable to identify the cause of the initial fire, it determined that the explosion involved the chemical ammonium nitrate. We recently recommended steps certain federal agencies should take to more safely manage this chemical. chemical1

Excerpted from GAO-14-274

Uses and Risks of Ammonium Nitrate

Ammonium nitrate has many uses, including:

  • Agriculture: To increase agricultural productivity, farmers can use solid ammonium nitrate fertilizer for things like pastureland, hay, fruit, and vegetable crops.
  • Mining and construction: Ammonium nitrate can be mixed with fuel or other additives and used for blasting.

However, ammonium nitrate also carries risks:

  • Safety and health: Ammonium nitrate can intensify a fire and has the potential to explode under certain circumstances, causing deaths and injuries.
  • Security: Domestic and international terrorists have used ammonium nitrate with other chemicals to make explosive devices.

How Can Federal Agencies Manage Ammonium Nitrate Risks?

Several federal agencies are responsible for overseeing facilities that use or store certain amounts or types of ammonium nitrate, including the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency. State and local governments have responsibilities for overseeing these facilities, too. However, we found that it’s unclear just how many facilities in the United States are using or storing this chemical. DHS’s count of facilities that have ammonium nitrate may differ from that of state agencies because each agency collects the data for different purposes. According to DHS, more than 1,300 facilities in 47 states reported having ammonium nitrate. However, this figure shows how DHS’s data from Texas compares to those of 2 state agencies: chemical2

Excerpted from GAO-14-274

Since the explosion in West, several federal agencies have been working together to figure out how to prevent another tragedy from happening. Among other steps, we recommended that these agencies explore ways to improve data sharing with each other and with states to get a better handle on where facilities with ammonium nitrate are located. We also recommended that OSHA find ways to identify high risk facilities that use or store ammonium nitrate and target them for inspection to promote worker safety and ensure that this chemical is safely stored.


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