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After Beirut, Experts Warn Of 'Dangerous Gaps' In U.S. Oversight Of Ammonium Nitrate

A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on Aug. 4.
AFP via Getty Images
A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on Aug. 4.

The catastrophic explosion in Beirut last week has renewed calls in the U.S. to strengthen oversight of ammonium nitrate or AN, a chemical compound used in some farm fertilizers.

Officials in Beirut believe the giant blast, which killed more than 200 people and damaged half of the city, was likely an accident caused by fire and negligent storage of some 2,750 tons of the chemical.

In addition to farming and mining, AN has been used in terrorist attacks from Oklahoma City to Baghdad. It's highly explosive. It has been an ingredient of choice for improvised explosive devices and car bombs that have killed scores of soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Beirut explosion surely wasn't shocking to residents of the small Texas town of West, population 2,900.

A 2013 fertilizer plant fire there ignited more than 250 tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in flammable wooden boxes. The explosion leveled or damaged more than 150 buildings. It also killed 15 people, including 12 firefighters, almost all of them from local volunteer departments.

On NPR's Morning Edition after the blast, the Texas Department of Public Safety's D.L. Wilson described what he saw.

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"I can tell you I was there," he says. "I walked through the blast area. I searched some houses earlier tonight, massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City."

Given the amount of the chemical on hand, the West Fertilizer Company was supposed to report its ammonium nitrate stockpile to the federal Department of Homeland Security. According to federal officials, it did not. A state agency in Texas did know about the AN. But it failed to share that information with DHS. As one congressman later put it in a federal hearing, "DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up."

It's exactly that jumble of federal and state agencies regulating ammonium nitrate – and longstanding concerns about a lack of clear coordination – that has experts, once again, sounding the alarm.

On the federal side, the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board as well as the departments of Transportation and Agriculture all have some piece of ammonium nitrate oversight.

Experts say that is a patchwork with dangerous gaps.

"Why we, after 9/11 and Oklahoma City and West, Texas, continue to flirt with disaster with this material is beyond me," says environmental consultant Rick Hind, a chemical hazards and safety expert. Hind spent nearly three decades as Greenpeace's legislative director in Washington, D.C. He says federal oversight of ammonium nitrate storage, transport, processing and use remains a morass of vague and slippery regulations, despite repeated attempts to strengthen the rules.

AN is relatively stable under the right conditions. But when contaminated by dirt, certain kinds of wood, oil or myriad other things, Hind says, AN can become powerful explosives that today "go largely unseen and under-regulated because of the magic of the chemical and agriculture lobby, the fertilizer people."

Hind says the Beirut explosion should be a wake-up call to finally tighten federal oversight.

"They say it's stable," Hind says. "But when you look at what all the rules are ... you can see this stuff has got to be handled very, very carefully and monitored while it's being handled — and constantly inspected. And that's not happening."

Critics say OSHA, the EPA and other federal agencies have consistently failed to adequately inspect facilities storing the chemical. At the time of the West, Texas, explosion, OSHA had not inspected the West Fertilizer company for nearly 30 years.

"OSHA inspections are few and far between," Hind says, "with depleted funding and litigation now hamstringing their regulatory process."

In its detailed report of the explosion, the Chemical Safety Board said West, Texas, was hardly the only risky site.

"We highlighted the number of places that AN is stored in facilities that have not been reviewed," says Vanessa Allen Sutherland, who ran the CSB during the final stages of the investigation. "We show that the landscape throughout the United States is replete with AN risks"

Those risks are still out there.

After the explosion in West, OSHA recognized that America's ammonium nitrate rules were painfully out of date, given the potential for accidents or terrorist attacks.

OSHA tried to close what's called the "retail exemption," arguing that the definition of "retail" was dangerously vague.

It "allowed facilities with large amounts of bulk material to be considered 'retail,' " says a senior aide on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, which oversees worker health and safety. He asked not to be named. Closing that loophole, the official says, would have bolstered oversight of hazardous chemicals.

But industry sued arguing that OSHA wasn't following proper federal rules-making procedure. A federal court agreed. That industry victory meant thousands of facilities storing large amounts of highly hazardous chemicals would remain exempt from safety management guidelines set by OSHA. There remains "enormous industry opposition to covering ammonium nitrate under OSHA's Process Safety Management (PSM) standards," the official says.

David Michaels led OSHA as assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health during the Obama administration. He said on that rule and many others, the chemical, fertilizer and agriculture lobbies "opposed any attempt to strengthen regulations."

Now a professor of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University, Michaels says those industries have repeatedly successfully blocked enforcement of new safety provisions for AN. So the old rules, which Michaels calls ludicrous and dangerous, remain in place.

"They allow ammonium nitrate to be stored in wooden buildings, for example, without sprinklers," Michaels says. "That is currently allowed under the OSHA ammonium nitrate standards because OSHA hasn't updated that since when OSHA began almost exactly 50 years ago. And it was an old standard then."

AN was left off an EPA list of "highly hazardous" substancesflagged for special attention at the end of the Obama administration. The agency did issue a rule that, in theory, would require some facilities to consider safety and accident prevention. It's not clear if that rule is being adequately enforced.

Several federal agencies that oversee ammonium nitrate declined NPR's requests for interviews and to answer specific questions about current oversight.

An EPA spokeswoman, in an email, said: "Chemical accident prevention and preparedness is a priority for the EPA. The Agency has made compliance with the chemical accident prevention and preparedness provisions of the Clean Air Act Section 112(r) a National Compliance Initiative."

In 2013, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to get together and come up with proposals to bring the handling and storage of AN into the 21st century.

Following that executive order, OSHA started the lengthy process to change its safety management standards for dangerous chemicals - including AN.

Environmental groups didn't think the proposed options went far enough. Industry said they went too far.

But that reform process, former OSHA head Michaels notes, came to a screeching halt under the Trump administration.

"We said 'this is important,' and we asked all of our stakeholders to weigh in. And, of course, all those activities were immediately shelved by President Trump. And so any efforts to safeguard communities and workers in the event of an ammonium nitrate explosion simply stopped," he said.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has moved to diminish or undo nearly 100 major environmental and climate regulations, arguing that they stifle business and the economy. Those rollbacks include federal rules governing clean air, water and toxic chemicals. Dozens of those actions are being challenged in court. The attempted rollbacks, though, have put even more pressure on states and industry to regulate themselves.

For their part, the agriculture and fertilizer lobbies argue that self-regulation is adequate, when combined with current federal and state guidelines, to prevent future disasters like Beirut or West, Texas.

"There are robust regulations in place," said Richard Gupton, senior vice president for public policy and counsel at the Agricultural Retailers Association. "There has not been any accident at a facility complying with existing regulations. There's a number of (federal) regulations to ensure the safe storage, handling and transportation of the product."

Gupton points out companies have created an industry-led oversight and inspection program called Responsible Ag and have voluntarily bolstered their own standards and protocols for AN storage

"We created Responsible Ag to make sure these facilities are operating in a safe and secure way to protect employees and local communities," Gupton says. "And we'll gladly work on updating regulations — where needed and where appropriate — but it needs to go through a proper rule-making process."

But watchdog groups say voluntary, self-regulation of AN is hardly enough.

Katherine Lemos, the current head of the federal Chemical Safety Board, hopes the Beirut tragedy spurs new efforts to improve storage and handling of the chemical here, something her agency recommended several years ago in its report on the disaster in West, Texas.

"We are about preventing catastrophic explosion. This is preventable. We really need to push on it. I think it's critical. That's our job," Lemos says.

She points out that the U.S. still fails to adequately restrict the storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate near schools, nursing homes, hospitals and homes.

Of the Chemical Safety Board's 19 safety recommendations following the West, Texas, disaster, 12 remain unimplemented.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.