Processing Magazine

Chemical accidents pose greater risk to public than terrorist attacks, research suggests

June 12, 2013
dangerous chemicals
Photo credit: endopack/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Hundreds of facilities across the United States are storing potentially hazardous chemicals that could cause a deadly blast, similar to the one at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in Texas in April, research from the Associated Press reveals.

Drawing upon data obtained from public records in 28 states, the Associated Press found that at least 120 facilities were located in areas that could put at risk schoolchildren and sick people who may not be able to react in the event of an incident. The actual number of these plants remains unknown, as the remaining states refused to submit the information. States including Ohio, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho and South Carolina said they could not provide such information because they were concerned over possible terrorist attacks. Others, such as West Virginia, explained that researchers could obtain paper records in person or request records one at a time. In fact, state laws provide for concealment of such information in certain states. In Hawaii, for example, people need to prove they need this information before they are allowed to obtain it, the Associated Press noted.

Despite the incomplete data that the Associated Press collected, the conclusion is obvious: Theoretically, chemical or industrial accidents like the one in Texas are more likely to cause damage to the U.S. population than terrorist attacks.

RELATED: Federal agencies criticized for oversight failure prior to Texas fertilizer plant explosion

The need for effective oversight becomes even more poignant considering the fact that records show at least 60 facilities store at least the same amount of ammonium nitrate as the amount reported by West Fertilizer. Some 20 of these plants were contacted by the Associated Press and three of them challenged the records. In some of the plants the chemical is kept in solid form, which specialists define as the most hazardous.

The number of plants that store ammonium nitrate is not surprising, as the chemical is a key component in certain industries and is generally safe if stored properly. Sadly, history remembers numerous instances of storage failures that have led to explosions and deaths. Before the West Fertilizer incident the most recent case was in France in 2011, when a blast killed 31 people and forced the French government to act quickly and introduce tougher regulations on handling and storing the chemical.

According to scientific reports the chemical has such a devastating power that, if a fire breaks out at a factory containing ammonium nitrate, everyone within up to half a mile will be at risk. During the investigation at the Texas plant, debris was found over two miles away from the center of explosion. Associated Press researchers estimated that the number of people who live within a quarter of a mile from a facility that stores just 190 tons of the chemical exceeds 600,000. Many more people have family at hospitals or send their children to schools located within these areas. Large proportions of the communities at risk were middle-class and poor households, the analysis found.