Texas tragedy stirs interest in chemical plant safety

The April 17 explosion of a small-town fertilizer plant in Texas took nearby residents – and emergency responders – completely by surprise.


The disaster also has spurred new scrutiny of chemical plant safety in cities such as Augusta, where 14 major industries make, use or store more than 109 million pounds of toxic materials – on any given day.

According to risk management plans filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the inventories in Augusta’s factories can include up to 72.2 million pounds of anhydrous ammonia, 28.3 million pounds of sulfuric acid mixed with sulfur trioxide, 3 million pounds of hydrochloric acid, 94,380 pounds of nitric acid, 37,000 pounds of chlorine dioxide and varied volumes of many other materials.

The numbers, while staggering, don’t necessarily paint a portrait of danger, said Special Operations Chief Wayne Taylor of the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department, who also manages the area’s emergency management office.

“They make safety a priority and we’ve worked over the years to build relationships and visit their sites,” he said. “Those relationships are important. When you show up on the scene in an emergency, you don’t want it to be the first time you’re meeting these people.”

Massive volumes of dangerous chemicals, of course, warrant an equally formidable emergency response capability, he said.

In addition to the Augusta-Richmond County resources, many major plants – including PCS Nitrogen Fertilizers and DSM Chemicals along the Savannah River – maintain private haz-mat teams and equipment used in regular drills. Mutual aid is also available from Fort Gordon and nearby counties.

Although none of the local industries has ever experienced a “worst-case” accident, Augusta drew national attention in 1997 when it became the third community in the U.S. to devise and share such catastrophic scenarios with the public under what became known as the “Community Right to Know Act.”

During presentations to the public, the companies acknowledged that plumes from a worst-case release could cause deaths as far away as Waynesboro, Ga., and Trenton, S.C., but that such an incident was unlikely, if not impossible.

Those scenarios could face closer inspection in the future after the West Fertilizer Co. plant accident that killed 14 people. The Texas plant’s “worst-case” scenario made no mention of the possibility of an explosion.

Although details of the worst-case scenarios for Augusta’s industries were shared publicly in past years, security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks yielded changes that removed the specific off-site consequences from the still-public risk management plans. Those details are now available only by visiting – in person – specified “reading rooms” maintained by the EPA.

The plans, however, still include other requisite information, including a recent accident history from each reporting industry.

In the case of PCS Nitrogen, which is one of the nation’s largest fertilizer plants, its current plan mentions 10 accidents in five years preceding its most recent update in 2011. The largest such accident involved the release of 7,600 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.

Regulators including the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration are taking a closer look at fertilizer plants, including those in Georgia. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division also makes annual inspections at Georgia’s four fertilizer plants, but usually only for air quality permit issues.

In fact, although various agencies play peripheral roles in regulating major fertilizer factories, disaster prevention is mostly up to the companies themselves.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture licenses 156 firms within the state and 540 from outside that sell 4,612 fertilizer products. Eleven companies transport ample tonnage to pay the department inspection fees, but the department only inspects for product quality to ensure consumers aren’t being shortchanged.

“We actually do not regulate the actual facility,” said Mary Kathryn Yerta, department spokeswoman.

State Fire Marshal Dwayne Garriss doesn’t either. He only has responsibility for buildings with more than four occupied stories, which doesn’t include many manufacturing plants.

Garriss does license and inspect bulk storage facilities that transfer fertilizer for transport.

“I don’t recall us issuing any citations for anhydrous ammonia at all,” he said.

Local emergency officials, along with industrial safety experts, are eager to know the still-undetermined cause of the Texas explosion, Taylor said.

“One of the things we will look closely at is the Chemical Safety Board’s investigation,” he said. “They had boots on the ground out there right away and they will do a thorough investigation.”

Although mammoth factories draw a lot of attention because of the quantities of chemicals they use, transportation corridors also harbor eye-opening volumes of potentially deadly cargo.

In 2010, Columbia County’s Emergency Management Agency conducted a “commodity flow study” in which traffic along Interstate 20 was audited for a 24-hour sampling period.

The results revealed that 6 million pounds of hazardous cargo had rolled through Richmond and Columbia counties – on a single day.

In addition to dangerous or deadly materials such as chlorine, sulfuric acid and ammonia, auditors also found 92,280 pounds of hydrochloric acid; almost 143,060 pounds of ammonium nitrate; 45,594 pounds of radioactive nuclear fuel rods; 38,760 pounds of weapons cartridges; 48,000 pounds of arsenic acid; and 30,730 pounds of fireworks.

A similar study was conducted in 2008 on I-20 in Carroll County. During that survey, 11,272 commercial vehicles were examined. They included 430 loads involving 161 hazardous materials totaling 5.56 million pounds.

Such studies help emergency officials devise realistic strategies to deal with transportation accidents.

Morris News Service reporter Walter Jones contributed to this article.


Columbia County builds hazardous materials plan
State's largest fertilizer plant shares safety commitment
Massive plant explosion rocks Texas town
Need to know

Georgia, with 286 facilities that make or store enough dangerous chemicals to have off-site consequences, ranks 15th among 50 states in that category, according to the Right To Know Network, a database of government records. Texas, with 1,347 such sites, ranks No. 1 by a huge margin.

Right-to-Know Network data on toxic chemicals in Augusta