Although no one can unwind the loss, from every tragedy comes lessons on how to prevent a reoccurrence. It is the job of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), a small, independent, non-regulatory federal agency, to investigate these disasters and to educate and advocate safety changes to prevent future destruction and fatality.
Our investigation into the West fire and explosion found that the company had a stockpile of 40 to 60 tons [36 to 54.5 tonnes] of ammonium nitrate stored in flammable plywood bins. A fire ignited the chemical, resulting in an explosion that destroyed the facility, as well as a nearby nursing home, schools and homes. The CSB's investigation looked at how close homes and schools were to the plant, and we also found poor hazard awareness in the first responder community. When the volunteer firefighters arrived on the scene, they did not know what chemicals were in the facility and were unprepared to respond adequately.
Emergency responders, such as the ones who drove up to the fire, have a critical role to play in safety and security. It is part of our mission to ensure that these individuals gain the resources they need to protect themselves, even as they protect us. Communities must be informed of the hazards present in their own backyards so they can be primed about whether to build schools and homes nearby.
The volunteer firefighters in West were not provided with proper information on that fateful night. The thousands of volunteer fire departments across the US deserve better and the CSB is helping to ensure that this vision becomes a reality. As a result of our investigation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded millions of dollars to improve training for firefighters across the country.
Communities must be informed of the hazards present in their own backyards
The hazards of chemicals such as ammonium nitrate are well known in the industrial chemical industry. But, as this tragedy demonstrated, that information needs to be more widely shared. Those who respond to the most serious chemical catastrophes and our fellow citizens need to know about such risks. The CSB is the only federal agency that looks at these risks and makes safety recommendations to other agencies, to state and local governments, to industry and to the emergency services.
Since our investigation in West, we are encouraged to see safety changes taking place. But more must be done.
Our agency plays a valuable role in the safety of US chemical facilities' operations, workers, emergency services and the surrounding communities. Our investigations and safety recommendations save lives, protect property and indirectly save jobs. We know the emergency service workers are safer today because of the important work done by the CSB. Ensuring that these heroes come home safely is an important part of why my staff and I are so dedicated to the survival of our small agency.