FRANKLIN, Ind. (WISH) - One month after a massive explosion at a fertilizer storage facility in Texas, criticism continues to grow over why so many homes and buildings were so close to it. I-Team 8 found Indiana also has very few rules in place to keep the storage of potentially dangerous fertilizers away from populated areas.
The explosion in West, Tex. on April 17 killed 14 people and left nearly 200 hurt, some critically. Dozens of nearby homes and buildings, including a nursing home, apartment complex and hospital, were damaged or destroyed in the blast, which was so violent it registered as a small earthquake.
A 93 foot crater was left in its wake.
At a news conference on Thursday, investigators said they had completed their scene investigation but not ruled out criminal activity. They announced last week that they had launched a criminal investigation into the explosion after the arrest of a West paramedic accused of possessing bomb-making materials. He has not been linked to the fire or explosion.
Possible causes of the fire that triggered two explosions have been narrowed to a 120-volt electrical system at the plant, a golf cart or an intentionally set fire, officials said. The golf cart was parked in the seed room and had been recalled by its manufacturer. All that was found of it were a brake pad and an axle.
Critics say many of the injuries sustained from the blasts could have been prevented because structures were allowed to be built too close to the facility.
I-Team 8 discovered that type of zoning is not uncommon, and in many states, laws meant to keep fertilizer facilities away from populated areas are filled with loopholes.
JUST DOWN THE STREET
In a quiet neighborhood just a few blocks north of downtown Franklin in Johnson County, Dennis Dougherty sat on a bright orange riding lawnmower and contemplated how to best improve his front yard. Until recently, his biggest concerns over fertilizer centered on how to make his lawn greener.
Then, he saw the images from the West explosion.
"I was surprised at the size of it,” he said. “It was very surprising. I thought--could fertilizer really do that?"
It’s suddenly a critical question in Dougherty’s neighborhood.
Two fertilizer storage facilities similar to the one in Texas sit one block away from Dougherty’s home.
Other neighbors live even closer.
“They [had] no notice or anything like that,” said Mary Griffin, whose son lives right across the street. “Those things don't happen. You don't get a notice.”
Eyeing the storage tanks down the street, Griffin said, until recently, she had no idea what went on there.
“I knew the farmers come in and got tanks of stuff for their fields,” she said. “But, I never even thought about it exploding or anything like that. I understand they do have alarms, but it makes me nervous now. Could it explode, too?”
It’s a question now being repeated in communities across Indiana.
HOW CLOSE IS TOO CLOSE?
In Franklin, Charlottesville, and dozens of other communities across Indiana, the boom of growing fertilizer distribution centers ended decades ago. These days, the small number of new fertilizer retail and storage facilities that pop up across the Midwest are built in the middle of nowhere.
It’s done that way on purpose to keep populated areas safe.
But, hundreds of older plants are still in operation in what used to be the middle of nowhere.
“In West, Tex., you can see where the town grew up around them,” said Crop Production Services General Manager Danny Carmony, standing near a set of storage tanks at fertilizer facility in Hancock County. “We've had that in a lot of our locations across the U.S. When they started, a lot of these plants were built in the 60's and 70's [out in the middle of nowhere]. Then, fast forward 30, 40, 50 years, and here's a town around it.”
That’s exactly what happened at CPS’ facility in Charlottesville, just off U.S. 40 near Greenfield.
“When it started, there were some houses out there on Highway 40,” Carmony said, pointing just off the property. “It has [crept back toward the plant] since then.”
I-Team 8 dug deeper to find out just how close those neighborhoods can be to a fertilizer facility. Our research found that the answer depends on several factors, including where you live, what the building is used for, and what the plant is storing.
In Texas, state code requires buildings to be at least a quarter of a mile—or 1,320 feet—away from fertilizer storage tanks. But, zoning variances are often granted. The West Fertilizer Company was given a special use permit to operate within 3,000 feet of a school. Inspectors at the time deemed the facility’s “impact potential” to be “low.”
Other states, like Tennessee, allow some homes to be built as close as 200 feet from storage tanks, while neighboring Ohio and Illinois increase the distances to 600 and 1,000 feet for large tanks placed near schools, hospitals or nursing homes.
Indiana also breaks its fertilizer proximity laws down by building type. Storage tanks must be kept at least 2,000 feet from hospitals and nursing homes, 1,000 feet from “places of assembly,” like schools and businesses, and 400 feet from homes.
But, is that far enough?
In West, nearly everything within four blocks, including houses, an apartment complex and a nursing home were reduced to rubble. Damage was sustained to some buildings more than half a mile away from the center of the blast.
And, I-Team 8 discovered, in Indiana, there’s an even bigger catch: those rules only apply to one type of fertilizer. Dry fertilizers—including ammonium nitrate, which is suspected of igniting the blast in West--can be stored anywhere in Indiana, in any amount, as long as the area is properly zoned.
More than 400 fertilizer storage and retail facilities are scattered across Indiana. Around 300 of them are similar in size and scope to the West, Tex. facility, which did not produce fertilizer, but stored it to sell directly to farmers.
Only 44 fertilizer production plants exist nationwide. But, there are more than 6,000 U.S. fertilizer storage and retail facilities.
Many of them carry similar, if not identical chemical fertilizers to the West, Tex. facility.
In Indiana, the task of regulating such facilities falls primarily to the Office of the Indiana State Chemist (OISC), based at Purdue University.
“As a regulator, from our perspective, we're concerned about some of the immediate assumptions people can make about these facilities, about their safety, and about the importance of the industry in their community,” said Indiana State Chemist Dr. Robert Waltz.
Waltz said more information is still needed to understand exactly what happened in Texas, but the explosion itself was a result of one thing.
“They had a fire. It heated tanks. The tanks apparently exploded because they got too hot. The fire then also moved into a facility where the ammonium nitrate was kept. And, it was hot enough to ignite the ammonium nitrate. But, what caused all of that, we still don’t know,” Waltz said.
While other agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and Indiana and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration do have jurisdiction at fertilizer facilities, I-Team 8 found visits by inspectors are rare. Records show IOSHA only inspected one fertilizer plant in Indiana since 2011--T&T Fertilizer in Elkhart County. The inspection of that plant, and subsequent fines, only occurred after a small explosion there left four workers hurt.
In many states, including Indiana, inspections by outside agencies usually only occur if a complaint is filed.
The only agency charged with regular inspection of fertilizer storage facilities in Indiana is the OISC. But, Waltz admits, not every facility gets an annual visit.
"You don't check every facility every year,” he said. “But, you go through and check records and do background work on various facilities. It's a random thing."
OISC has eight inspectors on staff for the entire state. Some specialize in specific types of fertilizer.
But, here’s the bigger key: when inspectors do enter a facility, they're usually only looking at the quality of the fertilizer, not at the amount of it.
“What our office focuses on is on the product, the fertilizer material itself,” Waltz said. “Our responsibility is to make sure it is, in fact, true to [manufacturer] claims. They are required to report the tonnage to us. So, in our inspections, we may confirm that they have that kind of product available.”
"We just make sure that the numbers kind of add up,” agreed OISC Fertilizer Administrator Matt Pearson. “There is no limit as to how many tons you can store. We just want to make sure that what they're storing and what they're reporting makes sense.”
A MASSIVE PILE
Records show the West, Tex. facility was authorized to store at least 270 tons of ammonium nitrate at the time of the explosion. But on Thursday, the Texas State Fire Marshal’s office estimated that only 150 tons was on site at the time. The Fire Marshal estimated that between 28 tons and 34 tons of it had exploded, equivalent to 20,000 pounds of dynamite—much less than previously thought.
To put that in perspective, approximately 2.4 tons of ammonium nitrate was combined with diesel fuel and other chemicals in a bomb detonated outside an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. 168 people were killed in that blast.
Investigators say the size of the pile of directly contributed to the force of the blast.
But, I-Team 8 found some fertilizer facilities in Indiana may be keeping piles that make the West facility look small by comparison.
"That sounds like an enormous pile,” Pearson said. “But, when you're talking at Co-Alliance, for example, or at some other retail places, they will hold 400 tons, easy.”
Still, Pearson says there is one major difference between the piles in Indiana and Texas: while ammonium nitrate is stored for use as fertilizer in some parts of Indiana, it’s not as widely used by farmers in its solid form here as it is in Southern states.
“Ammonium nitrate is on an island all by itself, in terms of [explosiveness]. The other ones, like potash, you could use it as an ice melt. It’s very safe. Almost like road salt,” Pearson said.
Many Indiana farmers do use a modified form of ammonium nitrate, kept in liquid form. It’s known as Urea Ammonium Nitrate, or UAN.
At plants like Crop Production Services in Charlottesville in Hancock County, UAN is a popular commodity. Two massive tanks on site together hold nearly 1 million gallons of it.
Carmony, the CPS General Manager, called the explosive risk of nitrates in liquid form “low.” But, his crews still take extra precautions.
“All of our tanks go through a pressure test every three years. They're pressure tested and certified. And, two people at every one of my facilities are trained for 40 hours on emergency response. Then every year they have at least an 8 hour refresher course,” he said.
THE AMMONIA WILD CARD
The West, Tex. facility was holding another wild card on site as well: anhydrous ammonia.
Records show West Fertilizer was authorized to fill two, 12,000 gallon tanks with anhydrous ammonia. The facility’s permit allowed them to store around 54,000 pounds of the substance, which Texas authorities list as flammable and potentially toxic. Anhydrous ammonia can also explode, but only in very high temperatures of at least 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit.
Investigators estimate the fire at the West facility likely eclipsed that temperature.
Anhydrous ammonia is Indiana's third most popular fertilizer, Pearson said. At least 300 storage facilities across the state store it under pressure, either in gas or liquid form. Many of the tanks authorized to store the product in Indiana are at least as large than the tanks used at the West facility.
OISC has the regulatory authority to remove ammonia tanks that it deems unsafe.
But, I-Team 8 discovered it never has.
Pearson says it’s never been necessary.
“We've never had to take action. The whole pre-approval thing works really well,” he said.
Once the tank is built and filled, new homes and buildings are supposed to be kept away. But, Pearson admits, that’s rarely checked.
“If it's close, then we can go out there with a tape measure or a wheel and measure the distance. But, when the site is approved, we are confident that that is in compliance with our restrictions,” he said.
At CPS’s Charlottesville facility, there are two 18,000 gallon bulk anhydrous ammonia storage tanks, and dozens of 1,000 gallon “nurse” tanks on site as well, Carmony said.
This time of year, the product moves quickly.
“A tank will last about one day,” he said. “When these guys run, they'll go through probably eight to ten semi loads a day.”
With so much turnover of a potentially dangerous product, Carmony says extra stress is put on safety.
“Anhydrous ammonia, you have to respect it,” he said. “And, we do a lot of things to ensure it's safe, not only for us, our customers, but for the community.”
Because of the dangers surrounding anhydrous ammonia, CPS has added additional safety measures, not mandated by state or federal rules, Carmony said.
“Our local law enforcement, whether it be the volunteer fire department or the sheriff's department, they come out and do a walkthrough with us. They look at everything. We just open up the facility and say, come in. Take a look at what we’ve got. Here's where we store chemicals and fertilizer, so they clearly understand what we have here. We also put in valves that shut down the whole system. So, if somebody has a problem or something happened to leak, all of our lines, the whole system can be shut off with one button. It’s done, rather than using a trip wire or someone manually trying to close the system down, Carmony said.”
But, that approach may not be universal.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does require “risk management plans” to be filed on ammonia storage facilities, many states do not require any additional emergency measures to be filed.
Texas law does not require fertilizer dealers to have an emergency safety plan in writing, and the West plant did not. Indiana stopped mandating emergency safety plans at fertilizer plants and storage facilities in 1996.
Unless local or county ordinances require them, some fertilizer plants simply may not have one.
“It does [concern me], that some may not be fully prepared, as far as the communities that are involved,” Carmony said.
Some in those communities are concerned as well.
This week, opponents of a proposed $950 million southern Indiana fertilizer plant formally asked state officials to block the project because of dangers highlighted by the explosion in West, Tex. State officials have previously said they hope there are regulatory lessons that can be learned from the tragedy.
Carmony says he hopes others in the industry are paying close attention, too.
“I hope if they saw the explosion in Texas, that they were asking questions,” he said. “I hope they thought--what are we doing here to protect our community? What kind of safeguards do we have in place? Is everything the way it should be? I hope people nearby our plants see that. And, I hope none of them lose any sleep at night knowing we're here, because we're trying to do things the right way for them.”
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