West Fertilizer Plant Showed Few Warning Signs

Firefighters conduct search and rescue operations at a destroyed apartment complex near the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
Firefighters conduct search and rescue operations at a destroyed apartment complex near the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

Until late Wednesday, when a massive explosion ripped through its facility in Texas, West Fertilizer Co. was a small firm that attracted little criticism from regulators but plenty of respect from its neighbors.

The company, owned by Adair Grain Inc., now finds itself at the center of one of the largest U.S. industrial disasters this decade, after the blast flattened part of the small town of West, Texas, killing as many as 15 people and injuring more than 160.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company $2,300 for failing to update its risk management plan in a timely manner. It had been due in 2004. The EPA said it had poor employee training records, failed to document hazards and didn't have a written maintenance program.

The EPA said the company corrected the deficiencies and filed an updated plan in 2011. It said it now complies with EPA regulations.

The company's 2011 safety plan said the facility posed no fire or explosive risk, according to the Dallas Morning News. Even if there were a 10-minute release of ammonia, the worst-envisioned scenario, no injuries could be expected.

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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said the facility has been subject to routine oversight and complaint-driven investigations, but no major problems were found besides the missing permit in 2006. It had issued permits for two 12,000-gallon anhydrous ammonia storage tanks and for the material loading and storage operations of dry fertilizer materials.

The company declined to comment when reached by phone by NBC News.

"I know they were up to date on safety issues and the regulation sides," said Shane McLellan, an agent with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, a Texas A&M education-based partnership with federal, state, and county governments that works with farmers and their suppliers.

A fire at the facility earlier this year caused officials to evacuate a nearby middle school, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald, but it turned out to be a controlled burn of brush and pallets.

The cause of the blast Wednesday was still being investigated. As a precaution, the area was being treated as a crime scene, although local police said there was no indication of foul play. A team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents, was headed to the scene Thursday.

Founded in 1962, West Fertilizer has been supplying small farmers and ranchers in Texas with the types of chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia, needed to grow corn, cotton, wheat, hay, oats and grain sorghum.

"They've been a part of the community for a number of years. They're good guys. They move a lot of product and help a lot of farmers in that area," said Jimmy Dixon, co-owner of Virkim Inc, a company based in nearby Waco that sells specialized fertilizers to athletic fields, golf courses and pest control companies.

Dixon described West Fertilizer as a place you go not just to buy fertilizer but to learn."They have a lot of knowledge of the new products in the industry," Dixon said. "A lot of small communities around here have an area like that where you can get that type of information."

"They're good people," said McLellan, who works with West Fertilizer professionally and buys his own fertilizer there as well. "They're big community supporters, Little League, other events."

West Fertilizer has only eight employees, including its president Donald Adair, according to a profile from business research firm Hoovers.

The West facility stores anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer produced from fossil fuels, such as natural gas and coal, used to feed crops, prevent diseases and fight off pests.

West Fertilizer mixes dry fertilizer and stores anhydrous ammonia in large tanks. Agricultural anhydrous ammonia must be stored under high pressure in specially designed tanks and must be handled with care.

It can be used to make methamphetamine, according to the University of Arkansas.