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Arson at West Fertilizer: Does this change anything?

Posted on June 21st, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


“This tragic accident should not have happened.” Vanessa Allen Sutherland, Chairperson, United States Chemical Safety Board, 29-Jan-2016

 “The fire has been ruled as incendiary; this means this fire was a criminal act.”  Rob Elder, Special Agent in Charge, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, 11-May-2016

When the West Fertilizer Company warehouse went up in a powerful ammonium nitrate explosion on April 17, 2013, the shock extended beyond the small Texas town of West, near Waco, to the entire nation. Twelve emergency responders were killed, as well as three members of the public.  More than 260 people in the town of West were treated for injuries.  Residences and schools were destroyed; the property losses approached a quarter of a billion dollars.

The response to the disaster has been massive. At least five federal agencies—United States Department of Justice and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB)—and two state agencies—the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality—conducted investigations.  The President of the United States of America issued an Executive Order on improving chemical facility safety and security, requiring that these federal agencies do a better job of coordinating their efforts.  Conferences on process safety are still featuring papers and presentations on the disaster.

Central to everything said about this tragedy is the notion that this was a terrible, preventable accident. Most of the conference presentations and journal articles about the explosion at West Fertilizer are about the cause of the explosion and how to prevent a similar explosion from occurring again in the future.  There has been almost unanimous agreement that the owners of the West Fertilizer Company are to blame, but that there is more than enough blame to go around to manufacturers, to regulators, to standards organizations, and to the town of West.

So with all this blame to assign, so many to whom to assign it, the announcement from the ATF last month that this was an arson, “a criminal act”, came as another shock. Does this mean that none of these organizations are to blame?  How can any of them be blamed for what finally turned out to be a crime?  After all, don’t criminals commit crimes despite the laws, not because of them?

What is still the same?

One of the first things I heard after the announcement by the ATF was this comment: “Arson, huh?  I bet we don’t get a retraction from all the safety agencies about this being a ‘preventable accident’ that could have been avoided if only the owner had only followed regulations.”  Comments like that were issued in various agency press releases.  In fact, a comment like that is frequently issued as part of various agency press releases for all sorts of tragic events.  It has become standard boilerplate for a regulatory response because it is part of the world view for regulators:  If you follow the rules, nothing bad will happen, so conversely, if something bad happens, it must be because you didn’t follow the rules.  Hence the early rush to find regulations with which West Fertilizer had failed to comply, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the ammonium nitrate explosion.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the agencies involved were always mindful of the possibility that the fire at West Fertilizer may have been arson. The CSB report, issued months before the ATF announcement and echoing earlier reports from law enforcement agencies, identified three possible causes for the initial fire:  “(1) faulty electrical wiring, (2) short circuit in an electrical golf cart, and (3) intentional act of arson.”[1],[2]  The President’s Executive Order 13650, which was issued on 01-Aug-2013, was called “Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security” [emphasis added].[3]  These agencies suspected arson as the cause for the fire from the beginning and still felt comfortable describing the tragedy as “preventable.”

The tragedy was not the fire. According to a recent report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there is an average of 1,200 warehouse fires per year.[4]  These 1,200 warehouse fires result in an average of 3 civilian deaths per year.  Not per fire, per year.  In other words, 0.0025 fatalities per fire.  No, the tragedy was not the fire.  The tragedy was the resulting explosion, which killed three civilians and 12 firefighters in a moment.  Regardless of what caused the fire, the factors resulted in the explosion were completely in the control of the West Fertilizer, and compelling West Fertilizer to control those factors was completely the responsibility of the regulating agencies.

Are we blaming the victim?

There is the argument that if there had not been a fire, there would not have been an explosion, so how can West Fertilizer be held responsible? After all, the fire was a criminal act.  Isn’t blaming West Fertilizer for the explosion a case of blaming the victim?

That is a fair question.

An increased awareness of rape culture and of the mechanics of bullying have made us all much more conscious of our tendency to blame victims for the terrible things that happen to them. If only they hadn’t….  You can fill in the blank.  Slowly, we are realizing that blaming the victim for the acts of other moral beings is wrong.  We will still blame people who are struck by lightning while swinging a golf club in a thunderstorm or people who are attacked by a bear while leaving food out by their campsite in the wilderness.  But lightning and bears are completely amoral, meaning they are blameless.  They are simply doing what they do.

But people are moral, and while not responsible for what is done to them, they are responsible for what they do. The blame the victim of a crime for the crime is to argue that a crime is an act of nature, not the act of a moral agent.  To blame the victim of a crime for the crime is to say that the criminal is not a human being with moral agency.  It is to dehumanize the criminal, which is in itself unethical.

So which is an ammonium nitrate explosion as the result of a fire? Is it an amoral act of nature or the immoral choice of a criminal?

Acts of nature

Is 1200 warehouse fires per year a lot or relatively rare? While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are about 15,000 public warehouses in the United States, more relevant estimates probably come from vendors of warehouse products, which estimate the total number of warehouses in the U.S. at around 600,000.[5],[6]  That works out to a likelihood that a warehouse will have a fire of about 0.2% in any given year.  That is regardless of cause.  It is an order of magnitude more likely that a warehouse will catch on fire than a car will be in an accident in any given year.  So it is completely in the nature of warehouses to catch on fire.  Lightning strikes and warehouses burn.  Like an act of nature.

Does ammonium nitrate explode in fires? Not always.  When it does, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what the factors were that led to the explosion.  The literature, however, is replete with examples of ammonium nitrate explosions.  A simple search on the term “ammonium nitrate disasters” turns up dozens without even trying.  The safety data sheets for ammonium nitrate explicitly warn of the danger of explosion.  I have a copy of the 1990 Emergency Response Guidebook sitting on my desk.[7]  For ammonium nitrate fertilizer, it says, “May explode from heat or contamination” and “Isolate for ½ mile in all directions if tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in fire” and “For massive fire in cargo area, use unmanned hose holder or monitor nozzles; if this is impossible, withdraw from area and let fire burn.”  So it is completely in the nature of ammonium nitrate, when in a fire, to explode.  Lightning strikes and ammonium nitrate explodes.  Like an act of nature.

What changes?

So what changes, if anything, as a result of the ATF’s determination that the fire at the West Fertilizer Company facility was a criminal act that subsequently led to an explosion of ammonium nitrate?

Assuming the law enforcement agencies catch the arsonist, there will be a public trial. The docket will list the accused arsonist, but the trial will be of the chemical industry.

But otherwise, nothing changes as far as I can tell. West Fertilizer Company is still bankrupt.  Regulators still need to do a better job of regulating ammonium nitrate and compelling bad actors to comply with well established safety hazards.  Communities still need to avoid encroaching on hazardous facilities and the operators of those hazardous facilities still need to actively warn the communities of the hazards of their facilities.  Fire departments still need to understand the hazards they will face and how they will differ from ordinary structure fires.

What do we need to do?

Those of us who operate in chemical industry need to double down on our own safety practices and on the safety practices of others in our industry. When one of us screws up, we all get painted with the same broad brush.  When we sell our products, our responsibility doesn’t end when we load the material onto the truck, even if our lawyers have succeeded in limiting our liability.  If our products end up in the news, we end up in the news.

At a more granular level, we should all look at our storage practices. Most of process safety work focus on the chemistry, on the production of chemical products.  For most of us, once it is safely in the drum, our work is done.  Remember, though, that 1 in 500 warehouses catches on fire every year.  Is your distribution and storage as safe as your production processes?  If your product is involved in a warehouse fire, are you going to be hearing about it on the evening news?  Reading about it in a CSB report?  Our industry has come a long way but we still have a long way to go.  Arson or not.

Photo credit: CSB at

[1] CSB, “FINAL REPORT: West Fertilizer Final Investigation Report”, Released on 28-Jan-2016.  Accessed on 07-Jun-2016 at

[2] ATF/SFMO, “The State Fire Marshal’s Office and ATF Conclude Scene Investigation at the West Fertilizer Plant”, Released on 16-May-2013. Accessed on 07-Jun-2016 at

[3] Obama, B. “Executive Order – Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security,” EO 13650, The White House, Released on 01-Aug-2013. Accessed on 07-Jun-2016 at

[4] Campbell, R. “Structure Fires in U.S. Warehouses,” NFPA, Quincy, MA, 2016. Accessed on Accessed on 08-Feb-2016 at

[5] BLS, “Series ENUUS000205493, NAICS 493 Warehousing and Storage,” Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject, ” Accessed on 08-Feb-2016 at

[6] Jones, Rene, “Warehouse Management Systems by the Numbers,” Total Logistics Solutions. Accessed on 07-Jun-2016 at

[7] Research and Special Programs Administration, “Guide 43,” 1990 Emergency Response Guidebook, U.S. Department of Transportation.  Washington, DC.  1990.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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