From: Robin Blackstone, ENN
Published October 11, 2013 12:44 PM

OSHA potentially lets West Fertilizer off cheap

On April 17, 2013 explosions rocked the small town of West, Texas. Fire fighters initially responded to a fire at West Fertilizer Company owned by Adair Grain, Inc. but as water was used to put the fire out, an explosion incurred taking with it a neighboring 50-unit apartment building and parts of a nearby middle school, as well as heavily damaging a nearby nursing home.  With many lawsuits pending, OSHA has made its initial determination with regard to the West Fertilizer Company leading federal workplace safety regulators to propose initial fines in the amount of $118,300 against the company. This number, given the magnitude of the occurrence is thought to be extremely low.

 

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The explosion killed 15 people, injured 300 and left an estimated $100 million in damage. With an active investigation of the explosion site still ongoing, there is still much speculation as to its cause. With several multimillion-dollar lawsuits in process, OSHA is the first official body to bring action.

Senator Barbara Boxer, chairperson of the Senates Environment and Public Works Committee, made this announcement because OSHA itself has been shut down since October 1 due to government shutdowns. Senator Boxer made this announcement in an effort to prevent another tragedy. 

OSHA has issued 24 citations including the handling and storage of dangerous chemicals including the tons of solid ammonium nitrate fertilizer, one of the primary causatory explosive substances.  Ammonium nitrate is a common farm commodity, purchased by the ton. It is banned in other countries or heavily regulated because of its explosive nature. However in the U. S. it is largely unregulated.

"The attorneys for the company are reviewing the citation," West Fertilizer spokesman Dan Keeney said Thursday. "Their initial reviews showed that the accusations have nothing to do with the April accident." Indeed, according to Boxer, many of these citations are violations not related to the event. OSHA is not done with their investigation, but by law OSHA is required to issue their investigative findings within six months of an occurrence. This deadline is next Thursday. But due to the partial government shutdown, OSHA offices are closed leading all to wonder if West Fertilizer will likely be spared the heaviest of the possible fines. Yet Texas representative Bill Flores who represents West, says "At first blush it's probably reasonable, especially when you consider 15 people died and a small town got seriously damaged--$100, $200 million damage." Similar catastrophic events where OSHA levied fines against BP were accompanied by paid $21 million fine in 2005 for the explosion at the Texas City refinery that killed 15, $50.6 million fine in 2012 and $13 million fine in 2013 for other violations in the same city.

Clearly citations can be very expensive, lawsuits even more so.

But they can be avoided with increased attention to compliance with OSHA regulations and continued attention to the application of best practices at the site of a manufacturing or storage facility. Every company should have a site health and safety plan that reflects the risk related to their environment. West Fertilizer lacked an Emergency Response Plan. While the other 23 citations against West have not been specifically identified, all companies should use the West Fertilizer experience as an opportunity to conduct their own internal investigation. If there is doubt about internal findings, managers would be best served by hiring an independent environmental consultant to conduct a comprehensive study of the site to highlight potential violations, test air quality, soil and neighboring water supply. Not only could this proactive assessment save thousands if not millions of dollars in OSHA fines, it could also save human lives and their potential associative lawsuits.

Read more at Dallas News.

Explosion photo by Mike Stone/Reuters via itv.

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