ATF to reveal cause of West Fertilizer Company plant explosion

WEST, Texas – The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will reveal Wednesday what agents believe sparked a massive fire at the West Fertilizer Co. three years ago.

Channel 2 reported last month that the ATF had reached a conclusion about what caused the fire. Fifteen people died and 160 were injured when ammonium nitrate exploded on April 17, 2013.

The ATF report, which has been finalized, will say whether the fire was intentionally set or whether it was it was an accident. The full report will not be released, Channel 2 Investigates has learned, but details contained in it will be discussed at a news conference at noon Wednesday in West.

Ten first responders and two volunteers died while fighting the initial fire, which was reported 18 minutes before the blast. The explosion registered as a small earthquake, sent debris flying more than a mile away and left a 93-foot-wide crater at the site of a fertilizer storage building on the site.

After the fire, officials combed through debris and spoke to hundreds of witnesses.

The initial fire before the explosion started in a building at the plant where fertilizer was stored, the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office said in 2013.

Possible causes of the fire discussed in media reports over the last three years include a 120-volt electrical system at the plant, a golf cart or an intentionally set fire.

The golf cart was parked in the seed room and had been recalled by its manufacturer. All that was found of it after the fire were a brake pad and an axle.
The state fire marshal's office previously ruled out several possible causes for the initial fire, including another fertilizer stored on site, smoking, weather, anhydrous ammonia, a rail car on the site that was carrying ammonium nitrate or a fire within a storage bin of ammonium nitrate.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said in 2013 that investigators estimated that between 28 and 34 tons of ammonium nitrate on the site exploded. But there were about 150 tons of the chemical on the site at the time, including 100 tons in a rail car that did not explode. The chemical that exploded was stored in wooden bins. Kistner said the ammonium nitrate was the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of dynamite.

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical used as a fertilizer that also can be used as a cheap alternative to dynamite. It was the chemical used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Officials determined that ammonium nitrate exploded, but the ATF has not said what started the initial fire. The fire created the conditions for an initial smaller explosion, which Kistner said was only "milliseconds" before the larger explosion.

Bryce Reed, a paramedic who responded to the blast, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a charge of possessing bomb-making materials, but authorities have stressed that they have nothing linking Reed to the blast. Federal investigators say Reed had materials for a pipe bomb that he gave to someone else.

Two months before the explosion, the plant reported that it had the capacity to store as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, though how much was on site at the time of the blast is unknown.

Explosion exposes gaps in regulation, oversight

Channel 2 Investigates obtained documents in 2013, showing that none of the five state and federal agencies that visited the company at different times over the years raised any concerns that the plant was handling large amounts of ammonium nitrate.

The Texas Department of State Health Services requires companies to file an annual inventory of all chemicals being stored at a facility. The inventories are called Tier 2 reports and are required so that fire departments and emergency management officials will know what they are dealing with when there is a problem at a particular facility.

Channel 2 obtained seven years' worth of those reports filed by West with the state. The reports show that West never reported that it was storing ammonium nitrate at the plant until 2012. That report showed that it was certified by a plant official in February 2013 and indicated thaat West was storing 270 tons, or 540,000 pounds, of ammonium nitrate in "Container Type: R." According to state codes of container types, "R" is the designation for "other."

Department officials told Local 2 that they have no record of an on-site audit being conducted of the Tier 2 reports filed by West or any record of violations against the company.

Have a tip about this case? Email investigative reporters Jace Larson at jlarson@kprc.com or Robert Arnold at rarnold@kprc.com.