The operators of the Texas fertilizer plant where at least five people died in a blast Wednesday told government regulators two years ago that there wasn't a major risk of a fire or explosion from ammonia stored at the plant.
West Fertilizer Co. told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 that it was storing up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the plant, north of Waco, as part of a required "risk-management plan." The plan said that neither fire nor explosion has been identified as a significant hazard, according to a summary of the plan on the website of the Center for Effective Government, a nonprofit group that posts the EPA data.
Companies that handle specified toxic chemicals must file the plans with EPA and local emergency officials. West Fertilizer said there had been no accidents involving ammonia at the plant in the prior five years.
The plant appears to have been primarily a distribution center. In the risk-management plan, the company described the plant's primary activity as "the storage of fertilizers for sale to farmers."
"This was just a small dealership," said Donnie Dippel, president of the Texas Ag Industries Association, a trade group that represents fertilizer and chemical businesses. "It blended different types of fertilizers for whatever people needed."
In the risk-management plan, West Fertilizer said the "worst-case scenario" would be an ammonia leak from a storage tank or hose. It didn't specify the likely consequences. The company said the plant had no alarms, automatic shutoff system, firewall or sprinkler system.
In 2006, EPA fined cited West Fertilizer $2,300 for not implementing a risk-management plan, according to an EPA database.
The same year, West Fertilizer applied for a permit for two 12,000-gallon anhydrous-ammonia storage tanks, according to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality. The application followed a complaint to the agency in June 2006, in which neighbors complained of "very bad" ammonia smell that "lingered until after they went to bed."
The Texas commission told the company that it needed to build a barrier between the tanks and road traffic, and the company said it complied, according to the environmental agency's report.
The report highlighted the facility's proximity to populated areas, saying that it must be equipped with a water-spray system to address accidental emissions, and remarked that it was within 3,000 feet from a school.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the plant for one serious and two other violations in 1985, and assessed a $30 fine. OSHA's website does not list any inspections of the plant since then.