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An explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas on the evening of April 17 has killed an unknown number of people and injured hundreds. Firefighters responded to what began as a fire, but then quickly progressed into a massive explosion that could be felt for miles and registered as a 2.1 magnitude seismic event. For videos showing the explosion, click here.
The explosion was so massive that onlookers said it felt and looked like a nuclear explosion. Houses within a five block radius were destroyed, leveled into piles of rubble. An entire apartment building was stripped of its walls and windows. It is unknown whether and how many individuals are trapped beneath the rubble, but responders are having to take precautions as they search because of dangerous conditions.
It has been conservatively estimated that 5 to 15 people have been killed, but with the number of missing and unaccounted for, that number could be much higher. Many of the firefighters and responders are among the missing.
The cause of the fire and the explosion is unknown, and nothing is being ruled out, including that it was caused by terrorist activity. There is however no proof that it was an act of terror.
Local, state, and federal authorities are on the scene. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has a team at the scene, as does the Texas National Guard. Air quality is being aggressively monitored, and forensic teams are working to uncover what happened.
The West Fertilizer Company Plant housed more than 54,000 pounds of the dangerous chemical anhydrous ammonia, which is a gas that is used in the production of agricultural fertilizer. It is also used as an industrial refrigerant. It is a colorless but highly irritating gas with a sharp, suffocating smell. When released, it lingers close to the ground, a prime condition for human exposure.
Anhydrous ammonia contains no water, but can cause severe burns when combined with water. Within the body, it can cause severe dehydration, burns, and even death.
The effects of anhydrous ammonia depend upon the level of exposure. At low levels, an individual may experience itching or burning of the eyes. At high levels, eye exposure can lead to corneal burns and blindness.
At low levels, those who have been exposed may experienced coughing and wheezing, but at high levels exposure can lead to pulmonary edema, chest pain, swollen throat, and chemical burns to the lungs. In the worst case, exposure can lead to death.
The body can recover from exposure if removed completely from gas exposure. Oxygen and water are used to treat those who have been exposed.
Click here for information from the Centers for Disease Control regarding anhydrous ammonia.
Half of the small town of West has been evacuated, including a nearby nursing home. There is fear that while the gas at the facility has been turned off, that the only other tank that is in tact might explode as well. Depending on weather conditions and the status of the plant itself, authorities still may require the rest of the town’s 2,000 residents to evacuate. Schools in the town have been closed until further notice as well.
In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the West Company Fertilizer Plant $2,300 for failure to have a risk management plan in place that met federal standards. The purpose of this plan is to ensure that safeguards are in place to prevent chemical accidents from occurring.
The company vowed to reach compliance, and to put into place other regulations that would keep the dangerous chemicals stored at the plant from leaking or exploding, including daily inspections of the two tanks that held the gases.
While there are no major safety violations in the history of this fertilizer plant, in 2006 there was a complaint filed against the plant for the lingering smell of ammonia.
In addition, in a report required to be filed with the EPA, the owners of the plant reported that in no case, not even a worst case scenario, would a fire or an explosion be possible at the plant. Their worst case scenario was a leak of ammonia gas. Clearly, this assessment was incorrect.
Also in 2006, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated the company after complaints that there was a very strong, lingering ammonia smell around the plant.
At Kirkendall Dwyer LLP, we understand the magnitude of devastation that such a disaster can cause. Lives are ripped apart in more ways than one: individuals and families are having to deal with the loss of their homes, personal injuries, and even deaths within their families. As the investigation continues and the full loss of life and property is assessed, our attorneys want to assist you in any way possible. Please refer to our Plant Explosion Page and the resources available to you on our site. Our attorneys are available to help you begin the process of rebuilding and recovery, whether you need representation for a wrongful death, personal injury, or property loss. Contact us today.
READ OUR LATEST BLOG UPDATE ABOUT THE EXPLOSION HERE.