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U.S. Is At Risk Of Beirut-Like Explosion, Experts Warn


Investigators believe the catastrophic explosion in Beirut last week was likely an accident caused by fire and negligent storage of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate. That is a chemical compound used in some fertilizers. The blast killed more than 200 people; it wounded thousands more and badly damaged half the city. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the Beirut disaster has renewed calls here in the U.S. to strengthen oversight of the chemical.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Ammonium nitrate, or AN, is used in some common farming fertilizers and to create explosives for mining. It's also been used in terrorist attacks from Oklahoma City to Baghdad. It was an ingredient of choice for improvised explosive devices in car bombs that killed scores of soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Beirut catastrophe surely wasn't shocking to residents of the small Texas town of West, population 2,900.


STEVE INSKEEP: A fertilizer plant there first caught fire and then blew up. Rescue workers are combing through the wreckage this morning.

WESTERVELT: That 2013 fertilizer plant fire 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. Here's the Texas Department of Safety's D.L. Wilson on NPR the morning after the explosion.


D L WILSON: I can tell you I was there. I walked through the blast area. I searched some houses earlier tonight - massive, just like Iraq, just like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

WESTERVELT: Given the amount 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, DHS didn't even know the plant existed until it blew up. It's exactly that jumble of federal and state agencies regulating ammonium nitrate and long-standing concerns about a lack of coordination that has experts once again sounding the alarm. On the federal side, OSHA, DHS, EPA, BATF, the Agriculture Department and the little known Chemical Safety Board all have a piece of the ammonium nitrate oversight. Experts say that is a patchwork with dangerous gaps.

RICK HIND: Why we, after 9/11 and Oklahoma City and now West, Texas, continue to flirt with disaster with this material is beyond me.

WESTERVELT: That's environmental consultant Rick Hind, a chemical hazards and safety expert. Hind spent nearly three decades as Greenpeace's legislative director in D.C. He says federal oversight of ammonium nitrate storage, transport, processing and use today is a morass of vague and slippery regulations, despite many attempts to strengthen the rules. Hind says the Beirut explosion should be a wakeup call to finally tighten oversight.

HIND: They say it's stable, but when you look at what all the rules are - it can't get too dry, you can't get it too hot - 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.

WESTERVELT: Critics say OSHA, the EPA and other federal agencies have failed to adequately inspect facilities storing the chemical. At the time of the explosion, OSHA hadn't inspected the West Fertilizer Company in nearly 30 years and was left off an EPA list of hazardous substances flagged for special attention. Several federal agencies who oversee ammonium nitrate declined requests for interviews and to answer specific questions about oversight. In its detailed report on the explosion, the Chemical Safety Board said West, Texas, was hardly the only risky site. Vanessa Allen Sutherland ran the CSB during that investigation.

VANESSA ALLEN SUTHERLAND: We highlighted the number of places that AN is stored in facilities that have not been reviewed. We showed that the landscape throughout the United States is replete with AN risks.

WESTERVELT: Risks that 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 attacks. OSHA tried to close what's called the retail exemption. Industry sued, arguing the agency wasn't following the proper rulesmaking procedure. A federal court agreed. That industry victory meant thousands of retailers would remain exempt from safety management standards set by OSHA on hazardous chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. David Michaels was OSHA's administrator back then. He says on that rule and many others that chemical fertilizer and agriculture lobbies fought OSHA every step of the way and have successfully blocked enforcement of safety provisions. So the old rules, which Michaels calls ludicrous and dangerous, remain in place today.

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

WESTERVELT: In 2013, then-President Obama ordered federal agencies to get together and come up with proposals to bring the handling and storage of AN into the 21st century. 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 administrator Michaels notes, came to a screeching halt under the Trump administration.

MICHAELS: We said this is important. 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.

WESTERVELT: 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 currently 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 when combined with federal guidelines is enough. They created an industry-led oversight program called ResponsibleAg and have voluntarily bolstered their own standards for AN storage, says Richard Gupton. He's senior vice president for public policy and counsel at the Agricultural Retailers Association.

RICHARD GUPTON: There are robust regulations in place. We created ResponsibleAg to make sure these facilities are operating in a safe and secure way to protect employees and the local communities. And we're gladly work on updating regulations where needed and where appropriate. But it needs to go through a proper rulemaking process.

WESTERVELT: But watchdog groups say voluntary self-regulation of AN is hardly enough. And the current head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Katherine Lemos, hopes the Beirut debacle renews efforts to improve storage and handling of the chemical here, recommendations her agency made years ago after the West, Texas, explosion.

KATHERINE LEMOS: We're about preventing catastrophic explosions. This is preventable. We need to really push on it. I believe it's critical.

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

Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt
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.