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Texas fertiliser plant fined in 2012

19 April 2013, 12:30

Washington - The Texas fertiliser factory where an earthquake-like explosion killed up to 15 people was fined by US regulators in 2012 over its transport of hazardous materials, documents showed on Thursday.

The blast at the West Fertiliser Company on Wednesday - which destroyed dozens of homes in the small town of West - came after a fire at the plant, which is believed to have held large amounts of potentially volatile ammonia.

In 2012 the company was fined $10 100 by the US Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for mislabelled cargo tanks and "failing to develop and adhere to a security plan" for transporting a large quantity of anhydrous ammonia, according to a copy of the citation obtained by AFP.

The company reached a settlement with US regulators in which it paid a $5 250 fine, the documents show.

The violations concerned the transport of anhydrous (without water) ammonia, and not its storage at the factory itself, which exploded nearly an hour after a fire broke out Wednesday evening, according to local officials.

In 2006, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality carried out an "odour complaint investigation" at the plant and issued a notice saying it was operating without authorisation.

No risk of fire

The matter was resolved later that year when the company filed an application, the TCEQ said in a statement.

The fertiliser company could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Dallas Morning News meanwhile reported that the company had told the US Environmental Protection Agency and local authorities that its factory posed no risk of fire or explosion despite holding up to 24 500kg of ammonia.

Anhydrous ammonia, NH3, is a pungent, flammable colourless gas commonly used as a soil fertiliser.

It is compressed into liquid form and stored in high-pressure tanks. It becomes potentially explosive when high concentrations are ignited by a heat source greater than 651°C.

Officials have not yet confirmed the cause of the explosion on Wednesday - which registered as a 2.1-magnitude seismic event and sent up a massive fireball and plume of smoke - and said they have not ruled out foul play.

Primitive bombs

An alternative form of ammonia delivery is in granulated form as ammonium nitrate, or NH4NO3, which derives from NH3 combined with nitric acid.

Ammonium nitrate has been found in primitive fertiliser bombs of the kind used in the 1995 bomb attack on a US federal building in Oklahoma City, and in Oslo in 2011 by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.

Accidents involving ammonium nitrate include a 2001 blast at a French plant where 300 metrics tons of the chemical were stored, which killed 31 people. The exact cause of that disaster has never been determined.



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