The recent explosion in West, Texas has incited many questions. After the initial shock of the incident, people began to ask "How did this happen?" Industrial plants such as the fertilizer manufacturing plant in West are subject to both state and federal regulations. Two of the main regulating agencies for industrial plants in Texas are the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because there is such a high accident rate in the industrial and manufacturing fields, these industries are heavily regulated.
Unfortunately, OSHA and EPA inspectors can sometimes be in short supply. After the West disaster, reports began to circulate that OSHA had not conducted an inspection at this particular facility since 1985. That's a total of 28 years without a safety inspection. This plant did, however, have an encounter with the EPA back in 2006. Reports indicate that on August 14, 2006, the EPA fined the plant for $2,300. The fine was issued because the plant failed to implement a risk management plan. A plan such as this would prevent harmful chemicals from causing an accident.
Plants such as the one in West are also required to meet construction codes for chemical storage. The West plant had obtained construction permits to build two large storage tanks. Each tank would hold up to 12,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, a potentially harmful chemical that is commonly used to manufacture fertilizer. To secure this type of construction permit, the plant had to promise that it would conduct daily inspections to ensure that no ammonia was leaking from the tanks. Another requirement was that the plant only fill each tank to maximum 85 percent capacity. West Texas Fertilizer Co. obtained this permit from BACT (Best Available Control Technology), an initiative of Air Quality Management District (AQMD).
These regulating measures were not successful in preventing an accident at the West plant, but proper implementation of these regulations and inspections could significantly lower the chances of an accident elsewhere. According to OSHA, it "cannot inspect all 7 million workplaces it covers each year. The agency seeks to focus its inspection resources on the most hazardous workplaces in…order of priority." According to OSHA, a representative will visit a facility, explain why OSHA has chosen that particular facility for inspection, and then do a walk-around. The representative can point out violations and potential hazards as soon as he or she notices them. For each violation, the facility will be issued a citation and required to make the necessary corrections.
Although accidents and explosions in the fertilizer manufacturing field are somewhat rare, they can be catastrophic when they do occur. In fact, the worst industrial accident in the history of this nation was caused by fertilizer- the 1947 explosion of a ship carrying fertilizer in a port near Galveston. This accident killed nearly 600 people.
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