It’s been 14 months since an explosion at a fertilizer plant rocked the small town of West, killing 15 people.
In the year since, state and federal investigators have issued a series of reports. Their findings vary, but most indicate a similar trend – firefighters in West did not know enough about what they faced at the plant.
To avoid another similar catastrophe, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has been tasked with holding a public forum in every county that has facilities that store ammonium nitrate – the common fertilizer involved in the West explosion.
Last Wednesday, Connealy made stop No. 36 – of 96 – in Wise County. Hosted in conjunction with the Wise County Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bridgeport Fire Department, the meeting at Bridgeport Community Center drew about 75 people, mostly local volunteer firefighters.
“It was a very good turnout,” Wise County Fire Marshal Chuck Beard said. “[Connealy] shared information on what happened in West and the lessons that can be learned. We talked about the best practices for storing ammonium nitrate and how to handle it.
“We don’t want to make the same mistakes. More than anything, the discussion would be about a firefighter safety issue.”
In Wise County, there are three facilities that store more than 70,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate. Although Beard didn’t specify the exact locations, he said that each are located in remote parts of the northwest corner of the county and are closely monitored.
“I’ve been here for a year, and we’ve gone to these storage facilities at least three times,” he said. “They are very safe. They go above and beyond what’s needed to be done to be safe. They pass the inspections with sparkling reviews.”
In addition to visits from the state and county fire marshal, the locations also abide by “strict guidelines” imposed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“The ammonium nitrate is stored in overhead storage bins, which are isolated on location,” Beard said. “That’s the best way. These are three good facilities. Plus the places are so isolated that if something happened, not a lot of people would be immediately affected.
“There would be some evacuations, but it’s a limited number.”
But Beard hopes that safety meetings, like the one held last week, will prepare personnel in the event that a fire did break out at any of the facilities.
“We emphasize the importance of backing off and not getting in the middle of it,” he said. “If it’s on fire, evacuate a half-mile to mile radius. Back off, and preserve and protect … There’s nothing people can do. It happens so quickly.”
However Beard was quick to clarify that ammonium nitrate itself does not explode.
“It’s an oxidizer, which means it produces its own oxygen so it can burn and burn and burn,” he said. “To have an explosion, there myst be some kind of detonation – a lightening strike, the roof caving in (which is likely what happened in West). There must be a blasting agent. [Ammonium nitrate] will burn pretty rapidly, but it’s not going to explode without something.”
Making sure all departments are aware of what can happen is imperative, Beard added.
“If you don’t have enough water and manpower, it’s best to just secure the area, keep everyone away and let the fire burn itself out,” he said. “Locally we are making strides to make sure our guys are informed and as prepared as possible, should anything like the explosion in West happen here.”