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Environmental and Air Quality Testing Play Critical Role in West, Texas Investigation

CoverStory1On April 17, 2013, in the small town of West, Texas, an explosion occurred that resulted in 15 fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and damage to many nearby homes and businesses. This event happened at a facility that blended ammonium nitrate fertilizer for use in the largely agricultural community surrounding the plant. When this type of event occurs, it is important to work quickly to gain an understanding of the effects of the explosion, not only on site but in the surrounding community. Immediately after the explosion, Senator Barbara Boxer, Chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee (EPW) that oversees the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), ordered the CSB to investigate the disaster.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.

Terracon provides environmental disaster response services including water contamination, facility repair and worker safety consulting.During the first hours after the explosion, the CSB contracted the services of Terracon to assist them in evaluating and controlling potential safety and health risks so that CSB investigators could enter the site and conduct the investigation safely. Terracon has extensive resources and expertise, including 22 Certified Industrial Hygienists (CIH) and 11 Certified Safety Professionals (CSP), who can support government agencies responding to a disaster recovery. Randy McClure, Terracon’s national director of industrial hygiene and a former CSB investigator, reached out to Terracon’s experts in nitrogen-based fertilizer manufacturing, who began gathering resources and planning a trip to West, Texas.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire Arms, and Explosives (ATF) took charge of the site and, to preserve evidence, excluded other agencies while it performed its initial entry investigation. During this time, Terracon was quickly escorted onsite by the ATF to collect suspect asbestos-containing materials for analysis and to assess site hazards in preparation for the CSB to begin its investigation into the cause of the incident. Results from these tests helped determine the precautions that needed to be implemented and types of personal protective equipment investigators would need to enter the site. Terracon also evaluated the potential for dangerous chemical vapor and particulate exposures resulting from the explosion and fire.

Terracon helped the CSB investigative staff perform its mission, ensuring that the site hazards had been evaluated, that proper precautionary measures were communicated, and that investigators were equipped with the proper personal protective equipment. Following the initial entry and investigation the Terracon team remained available to the CSB as an industrial hygiene consultant providing guidance on further potential safety and health hazards related to the event.

The CSB’s work is important to American employees, businesses, and communities because its findings and recommendations help prevent catastrophic incidents in the future. The devastation to West families, their homes, and their community could not be undone, but Terracon feels privileged to have been a part of the team that worked to determine what happened, why it happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again.