Actions Will Help Prevent an Accident Similar to the Fatal Fire and Explosion Which Occurred in West, Texas
I would like to applaud recent actions by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to update guidance covering Ammonium Nitrate (AN). Recent revisions to the 2016 edition of NFPA 400, The Hazardous Materials Code has made significant changes related to the design, construction, and fire suppression systems of new facilities built to store ammonium nitrate. This action is an important step to prevent an incident similar to the 2013 West fertilizer fire and explosion which fatally injured 12 firefighters and three citizens.
The US Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) preliminary findings into the 2013 accident determined that ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. safety standards and guidance – a patchwork that has many gaps that could contribute to the severity of an incident involving AN. These gaps include: the use of combustible wooden buildings and wooden storage bins, the absence of a requirement for sprinklers, and no federal, state, or local rules restricting the storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate near homes, schools and hospitals.
The CSB also found that many provisions in the NFPA and International Code Council (ICC) fire codes regarding AN safety are quite old, are confusing or contradictory, even to code experts, and are in need of a comprehensive review in light of the West disaster and other recent incidents.
In response to the West incident, NFPA formed a task group charged with updating Chapter 11 – specifically to address many of the shortcomings identified by the CSB in its preliminary findings. Specific improvements to the 2016 addition include the updated code now calling on new AN storage facilities to be constructed of non-combustible materials, with separation of the AN from contaminants, as well as automatic fire sprinklers and a one-hour fire barrier floor to roof requirement. The minimum separation distance in the code for outdoor storage has been doubled from 15 feet to 30 feet.
I am encouraged by the actions completed by NFPA. Strengthening requirements governing the safe storage and handling of AN at facilities across the country will help prevent another tragic accident such as the one we saw in West, Texas. The CSB is in the process of concluding its final investigation report into this accident and will be returning to West, TX to release the report in the near future.
Rick Engler is the Board Member Delegated Interim Executive and Administrative Authority