Wednesday night a fire broke out at 7:00 pm at an industrial fertilizer plant owned by Adair Grain Inc. in West, Texas, a town of about 2,600 people, just north of Waco. As many as 15 people were killed and more than 160 injured. The plant supplies small farmers and ranchers in Texas with chemicals such as highly volatile anhydrous ammonia needed to grow cotton, corn, and other grains; the company produces its products from fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and used feed crops.
After reviewing the chain of events it is believed that the spread of the fire may have been prevented if the plant had upgraded its equipment to meet current safety standards. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recently recommended the use of smarter technology, such as limit safety switches, to help plants avoid these types of events.
Limit Switch Safety Technology
Anhydrous ammonia is a highly volatile substance that must be stored under high pressure in specially designed tanks; the material is sometimes used in the production of methamphetamine, the mishandling of which notoriously leads to explosions. When a fire breaks out at a chemical plant all volatile substances in the area are in danger of becoming part of the conflagration. Limit switches cut off pipes attached to burning facilities thereby keeping adjacent fuel sources from feeding the fire.
Small Fire Becomes Conflagration
The small fire spread and firefighters who first arrived on the scene as part of the initial response attempted to evacuate the surrounding area but a mere 15 minutes later a huge massive explosion, registering 2.5 on the Richter scale occurred.
Firefighters reported some success with the initial evacuations but were certain that additional victims were still trapped in the rubble and first responders may also have been injured or killed in the explosion.
Collateral Damage to Adjacent Residential Neighborhoods
Neighborhoods next to the plant including large apartment buildings, a nursing facility and as many as 45 homes leveled to rubble, heavily damaged, and/or caught fire. Rescue personnel working in the rubble compared it to a war zone. Firefighters suspended rescue operations after the initial explosion due to toxic fumes and the threat of a second explosion from an identical adjacent tank nearby.
Review of Risk Management Procedures & Employee Training a Key
Companies can avoid or reduce the possibility of events such as this by updating risk management plans, keeping accurate and up to date employee training records, documenting hazards and instituting a regular safety maintenance program.
Instead of an investment in smart limit switch technology that might have required thousands of dollars, the company is now faced with a much worse scenario.