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I work around these fertilizer facilities quite a bit for my job as an environmental scientist. Reading through all the info out there about this particular site, I feel like I should attempt to clarify what likely happened. Follow below for my first diary.

One of two things likely occurred at this site. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to confirm all the facts of the fire and their particular manufacturing practices. Here is my take on all of this:

1) They manufactured/stored ammonium nitrate, which was used in the OKC bombing. That stuff is dangerous and obviously very explosive.

2) The other option, and the one I'm leaning toward is that the anhydrous ammonia tank/s (usually between 12,000 and 30,000 gallons) exploded. Let me explain. Anhydrous isn't relatively explosive, or flammable (although certain conditions allow it to be), but it is stored under pressure. This seems to me to be the likely culprit.

The anhydrous is stored as a liquid in the tanks, and when a fire burns uncontrolled under or around these tanks the anhydrous starts to boil (it's boiling point is below standard room temperature). As a liquid boils it turns into a gas, increasing the pressure inside the tank. The tanks are equipped with a pressure relief valve that will release excess pressure once it hits a certain psi. At this point there is enough liquid to cool the skin of the tank, and keep it from rupturing. As the liquid continues to boil, more gas is created and the pressure once again builds triggering the relief valve. This cycle continues until the level of the liquid is below the flames. The exposure of the tank skin to these flames, coupled with no cooling system (the liquid) eventually causes the tank to fail...catastrophically. You may be wondering why the relief valve didn't release the pressure. The explanation is that at some point the pressure required to trigger the valve is lower than what the tank skin can contain.  The result is what we witnessed last night.

Typically these explosions are enormous and a minimum of a 1-mile radius is required to be safe. Obviously, this radius was not kept by many last night and unfortunately some paid the price. What is not clear to me, is if the firemen knew exactly what they were facing. In my estimation, they never should have tried to fight the fire once it was out of control, they should have focused on getting everyone evacuated.  I am in no way criticizing anyone at the scene, as I know how difficult those decisions are.

As I stated above, I don't have all the facts, and don't know what caused the initial fire, but from the eyewitness and videos, this explanation seems plausible to me.

See a visual explanation of the BLEVE search youtube.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This sounds reasonable (17+ / 0-)

    BLEVE's are very bad, and this was consistent with that. I was a volunteer firefighter for many years in a rural area, and these were always a concern (propane, anhydrous, you name it).

    Trade always exists for the traders. Any time you hear businessmen debating "which policy is better for America," don’t bend over. -George Carlin-

    by not4morewars on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 03:57:28 PM PDT

    •  Main raw material in anhydrous is methane (8+ / 0-)

      Here's the process:

      Raw Materials Preparation: to begin the process, air is filtered and compressed, water is clarified and demineralized, and natural gas is heated and desulfurized.

      Hydrogen Generation: steam and natural gas are fed into a Primary Reformer, a reactor furnace containing several hundred alloy tubes filled with catalyst. The catalyst promotes the chemical reaction of the mixture. The products of this reaction – hydrogen, carbon oxides, and un-reacted steam and methane – are directed to a Secondary Reformer, where compressed air is added to produce what’s called process gas.

      Process Gas Purification: the process gas next flows through high- and low-temperature Shift Converters, which convert the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen. CO2 is removed from the process gas; a portion of it is recovered for use in the production of urea.

      The remaining purified process gas, a 3-to-1 mixture of hydrogen and nitrogen called synthesis gas, is used to produce ammonia.

      Any time you're primary raw material is methane and you have no fire suppression system, as was the case in West, you are courting disaster.  The entire site was one potential enormous bomb just waiting for the right set of circumstances to go off.

      "Some folks rob you with a six-gun, some rob you with a fountain pen." - Woody Guthrie

      by Involuntary Exile on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 04:24:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  huh? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Spit, MidwestTreeHugger

        You clearly have no idea what you're talking about.  A tank of anhydrous ammonia doesn't know what it was made from.

        "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

        by Old Left Good Left on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 05:41:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Lotta that going around. n/t (0+ / 0-)
        •  Perhaps the Concern Was... (0+ / 0-)

          ...that the methane present at the plant was a fire hazard, in and of itself, and that a methane fire might have the potential to either ignite the ammonium nitrate in plant storage, or cause the rupture of the anhydrous ammonia tanks...

          After all, if it takes a fire to heat up the ammonia tank enough to cause it to burst, means there must be something on site that can burn!

          "Cause 5 in every 4 just don't amount to nothin' more, so watch the rats go 'cross the floor, and make up songs ' bout bein' poor." F Zappa

          by GearRatio on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 06:27:33 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  What methane? (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            ebohlman

            The plant didn't manufacture ammonia--it received deliveries of ammonia and stored it in large tanks.

            "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

            by Old Left Good Left on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 07:28:27 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  It was reported as being an anhydrous plant, (0+ / 0-)

              not a storage facility.  If it was just a storage facility that's some piss poor reporting - and no wonder it hadn't been inspected lately.

              "Some folks rob you with a six-gun, some rob you with a fountain pen." - Woody Guthrie

              by Involuntary Exile on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 08:44:25 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

          •  Precisely. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Oh Mary Oh

            Didn't think I'd have to spell it out in detail.  

            How do I know about anhydrous plants?  There was a huge anhydrous plant outside my home town.  I've seen the process.

            Everyone who worked at my home town's anhydrous plant, every kid who took chemistry in our high school, knew the potential for the place to become a giant bomb in the event of uncontrolled fire.  That's one reason why the plant was located five miles outside of town in the middle of corn fields. The other reason was the potential for catastrophic ammonia spills. (Bet the people in West, Texas wish their plant had been five miles outside of town.)  Safety at our town's plant was taken very seriously. While it, like the West plant, was built way back in the 1960's, it, unlike West, was built with a fire suppression system.

            BTW, my youngest brother co-oped at fertilizer plant (in the lab) while in school and sister, brother-in-law and nephew are all chemical engineers.

            "Some folks rob you with a six-gun, some rob you with a fountain pen." - Woody Guthrie

            by Involuntary Exile on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 08:31:26 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I'm surprised (0+ / 0-)

              that given your expertise in anhydrous ammonia manufacturing that you don't know the difference between manufacturing and storing ammonia.

              "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

              by Old Left Good Left on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 09:22:00 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Been Wating on Clarification... (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Involuntary Exile

                ...on just this issue. Was this a Haber-Bosch plant, where ammonia is manufactured? Or a downstream plant, where ammonia is processed into ammonium nitrate? Or a storage depot? Reports, so far, have been a bit ambiguous.

                Point of fact, most Haber-Bosch plants process ammonia into ammonium nitrate or nitric acid on site, as these chemicals are a bit easier (but not much safer!) to ship than ammonia is, and are also more generally useful and salable.

                "Cause 5 in every 4 just don't amount to nothin' more, so watch the rats go 'cross the floor, and make up songs ' bout bein' poor." F Zappa

                by GearRatio on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 05:22:30 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  Please (0+ / 0-)

                  show me a reliable report that this was an ammonia manufacturing plant.

                  "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

                  by Old Left Good Left on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 06:19:59 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Reliable Report? (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    Involuntary Exile

                    Eh! Stories like this one, don't consider ANY reports reliable for at least a few days after the event.

                    So, do you have data that YOU consider reliable that this was a storage depot? Don't be shy...

                    "Cause 5 in every 4 just don't amount to nothin' more, so watch the rats go 'cross the floor, and make up songs ' bout bein' poor." F Zappa

                    by GearRatio on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 06:53:03 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  Yes (0+ / 0-)

                      Pictures clearly indicate it was a warehouse, not an ammonia plant.

                      And from the Dallas Morning News:

                      The business stored anhydrous ammonia for sale to farmers. State and federal documents describe West Fertilizer as a seller, not a manufacturer.

                      "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

                      by Old Left Good Left on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 07:31:35 AM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  I agree, I once bought my AA and AN from a (0+ / 0-)

                        place just like that in the Valley (for a citrus grove). It made me nervous just to be around the place, having a lot of (practical) explosives knowledge.

                        "Double, double, toile and trouble; Fire burne, and Cauldron bubble... By the pricking of my Thumbes, Something wicked this way comes": Republicans!!. . Willkommen im Vierten Reich! Sie haben keine Bedeutung mehr.

                        by Bluefin on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:10:54 PM PDT

                        [ Parent ]

                    •  Go to Googlemap (0+ / 0-)

                      and look at the satellite pics (the plant is northeast of the middle school, which is readily identfiable by the oval track).

                      Definitely not an ammonia-manufacturing plant.

                      "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation..."--David St. Hubbins

                      by Old Left Good Left on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 09:08:35 AM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for your insight. (15+ / 0-)

    Is it common to find nursing homes and schools so close to a facility like this?

    And are these places routinely inspected? In this case we have learned that none was done for six years.  Does that mean your permit, once issued, is good forever?

    Thanks in advance!

    Be the change you want to see in the world. -Gandhi

    by DRo on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 03:58:38 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for the knowledge based background (10+ / 0-)

    on the possibilities.

    How big is your personal carbon footprint?

    by ban nock on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 04:03:27 PM PDT

  •  Appreciate your efforts to clarify this for us. (15+ / 0-)

    With regards to the initial response by the local firefighters, everything I've read says that they were trying to evacuate rather than fight the fire that led to the explosion:

    About a half-hour before the blast, the town's volunteer firefighters had responded to a call at the plant, Swanton said. They immediately realized the potential for disaster because of the plant's chemical stockpile and began evacuating the surrounding area.

    The blast happened 20 minutes later.

    Source: http://mycenturylink.com/...
    •  I seen it reported as well (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Oh Mary Oh

      but I heard a few eyewitnesses saying that a few firemen stayed behind to try and fight the fire. As I tried to convey, I'm not sure we know what happened. Those guys and/or gals either knew what was going to happen and left to evacuate others or stayed and fought it (very brave) or they had no idea the risk this fire posed.

  •  A poster earlier, who lives in the area (6+ / 0-)

    and based their comments on video footage and early reports they had seen last night, claimed neither of the two tanks had exploded and that the blast almost certainly originated in the ammonium nitrate piles.  I haven't seen any of the video, but I do wonder if there is a basis in reality for that claim.

    I know early reports often get it wrong.

    When the union's inspiration /Through the workers' blood shall run /There can be no power greater /Anywhere beneath the sun /Solidarity Forever!

    by litho on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 04:34:00 PM PDT

    •  I seriously bet (3+ / 0-)

      on the ammonium nitrate.

      I mean, fundamentally, at some point, you just don't want fire hitting any number of things at a fertilizer plant. But this level of detonation in anhydrous ammonia would take some awfully specific circumstances, from my chem background. This isn't just a tank popping. Some of the mile radius cited here if the pressure busts stuff is due to chemical burns and inhalation, etc, not generally this kind of detonation.

      Granted, I don't know every detail here involved at the pressure, etc, or what was burning at what heat. That would take somebody who knows a lot more about the details of the physics in it than I have.

      But I give. It doesn't ultimately matter that much, and investigation will give a lot more info with time.  

      •  Go on youtube (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Oh Mary Oh

        and look up BLEVE's. The power from just a small backyard propane tank is unbelievable. Remember BLEVE's aren't about the chemical, rather the pressure and tank weakness.

        •  I know. (0+ / 0-)

          I can tell you more about various kinds of explosions than the average bear.

          I have serious doubts that what I see here happens without an actual detonation.

          Whether one could be triggered by this set of pressure circumstances is another story, I don't know, and that does depend on the chemical.

          Doesn't really matter anyway.  

  •  KXAN Austin (7+ / 0-)

    is reporting that the plant was fined in 2012 and that the facility did not have the state-required sprinkler systems.

    Also -

    Records reviewed by the AP show that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration determined that the West Fertilizer Co. planned to transport anhydrous ammonia without making or following a security plan. An inspector also found that the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled.
    Link
  •  Here's a summary of the losses among the first (12+ / 0-)

    responders:

    Note - I believe I read that the Dallas firefighter lived in West, and was at home when he responded to the fire.

    R.I.P.

  •  My diary on Gov. Perry's attitude on work safety (14+ / 0-)

    "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

    by Lefty Coaster on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 04:50:44 PM PDT

    •  (100+ / 0-) (0+ / 0-)

      "Double, double, toile and trouble; Fire burne, and Cauldron bubble... By the pricking of my Thumbes, Something wicked this way comes": Republicans!!. . Willkommen im Vierten Reich! Sie haben keine Bedeutung mehr.

      by Bluefin on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:22:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  According to the Guardian (12+ / 0-)

    who has had some stellar live coverage here,

    The last time the Occupational Safety & Health Administration – the body that is tasked with making sure American workplaces are safe for employees – inspected the West Chemical & Fertilizer Co was in 1985.
    On that occasion it identified one serious, and two other violations and imposed a fine. Since then it has not visited the factory once.
    One industrial chemicals expert told the Guardian that he was not surprised by the lack of visits, adding that in the industry it was well known that the OSHA was “overworked and undermanned”.
    A glance of the figures confirmed that to be true - the watchdog is tasked with overseeing the safety of 7 million worksites in the US. In all, it has 2,000 inspectors nationwide and under current funding levels can only conduct 40,000 inspections every year.
    As such, a typical workplace can be expected to get a visit every 175 years. And the agency's budget is set to cut as a result of the sequester, making it likely that even less workplaces will be inspected.
    As a result of automatic spending cuts, the OSHA will have its budget cut by 8.2%.

    You..ought to be out raising hell. This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes. -Mother Jones

    by northsylvania on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 05:11:42 PM PDT

    •  And purposely, criminally made so by many, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      northsylvania

      many of our politicians. Y'all know who they are.

      ...that the OSHA was “overworked and undermanned”.

      "Double, double, toile and trouble; Fire burne, and Cauldron bubble... By the pricking of my Thumbes, Something wicked this way comes": Republicans!!. . Willkommen im Vierten Reich! Sie haben keine Bedeutung mehr.

      by Bluefin on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:25:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I don't doubt (0+ / 0-)

    that the skin can fail, and very quickly, under heat raising the pressure too high, but in itself that's a pressure explosion -- would that be expected to create a sudden propagation in anhydrous? Because that is one heck of a detonation.

    I mean, getting combustion to propagate in it in general is not easy, though of course very high pressure changes a lot about a lot of things.

    I have no idea. I await all sorts of info before making up my mind on any of it.

  •  Facts (5+ / 0-)

    Congratulations on your first diary! (Even though the title is a little misleading)

    Thanks for offering your knowledge surrounding these types of facilities and opinion regarding the possibilities of what cause this particular explosion.

    “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    by Josiology on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 05:24:53 PM PDT

  •  Who builds schools, nursing homes, etc., w/in 1700 (3+ / 0-)

    feet of a frickin FERTILIZER PLANT???

    Completely gobsmacking.

    Fight them to the end, until the children of the poor eat better than the dogs of the rich.

    by raincrow on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 05:26:56 PM PDT

  •  It was a fairly small business (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe, efrenzy

    When I saw the huge explosion, I was thinking it was some kind of big fertilizer factory.

    I heard a report on NPR, then googled it. The West Fertilizer company had eight employees and reported sales last year of $4 million. That's pretty small.

    "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

    by Dbug on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 05:42:48 PM PDT

    •  But a big fish in a small pond... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dbug

      I better clarify- in any small town in America, like the big ones too, there is a de-facto controlling elite; usually the business owners: ag biz, banker, fuel supplier, etc.
      They get things done, or not.

      "Double, double, toile and trouble; Fire burne, and Cauldron bubble... By the pricking of my Thumbes, Something wicked this way comes": Republicans!!. . Willkommen im Vierten Reich! Sie haben keine Bedeutung mehr.

      by Bluefin on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 08:30:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Not a BLEVE... (0+ / 0-)

    Or at least, I don't believe it. BLEVEs usually require damage to a tank (usually an overturned railcar or similar) specifically with damage to a pressure relief valve, plus a fire under the car or tank. That seems unlikely here.

    Ammonium nitrate is written all over this. Look at the Texas City disaster, the Oppau disaster (and a smaller predecessor), or the Ryongchon disaster. Large quantities of burning AN going from deflagration to detonation, often with water or steam being used, in a confined area.

    Ammonium nitrate is not especially dangerous in small amounts, but has a number of odd properties that make it very dangerous in large amounts.

    E.g., prior to the Oppau disaster, it was not unusual to use dynamite (!) to break up big chunks of it at the plant after they had congealed. This had reportedly been done thousands of times prior to the disaster. As the major component of ANFO (the Oklahoma bombers used this - 96% AN, 4% Fuel Oil), it is a powerful explosive, but requires a powerful primary for reliable detonation.

    It will burn, and in large (multi-ton) amounts will undergo deflagration-to-detonation transitions. Adding water to burning AN makes this more likely, and was likely a factor in two of the explosions in Texas City, Ryongchon, and elsewhere.

    In the presence of modest amounts of contaminants, it can undergo autocatalytic decomposition, becoming quite warm and in large amounts, spontaneously igniting.

    Oppau explosion

    Texas City Disaster

    Ryongchon Disaster

    •  My reasoning (0+ / 0-)

      Looking at Google Earth, the anhydrous tanks appear to be located south of the building where the fire was. The fire was fairly large and if at that end of the building would have pretty much engulfed the tank. Now if that building is also where the ammonium nitrate was stored then all bets are off, and I lean to your side. But BLEVEs don't require a prior weakening of the tank skin. A fire is all that is needed, and the relief valve can be in perfect working order. I don't know the exact cause, but either could be this destructive.

      •  ... (0+ / 0-)

        BLEVEs don't require a weakening of the skin, but they do usually require a failing relief valve (or a very undersized one).

        To get a BLEVE, the burning needs to be under the tank -- fire heating the top of the tank will not be cooled well, and the tank will fail much sooner at the hottest/most-stressed point. (Thermal stratification will set in, allowing the top to heat much more quickly than the bottom.)

        Ammonia is also not a very good candidate for a BLEVE -- the flammability/explosion limits for ammonia are relatively picky -- 15% - 28%.

        Finally, it is know that there were large amounts of AN present. AN is well known to spontaneously decompose, particularly in the presence of water, heat, or contaminants, and large quantities are known to auto-ignite. Further, it is also known to transition from deflagration to detonation, especially in confined areas or when treated with water or steam.

        It's certainly possible that this was caused by cook-off of the anhydrous ammonia. But that's definitely not the way to bet.

  •  One other possibility (0+ / 0-)

    Get anhydrous ammonia hot enough, and some will disassociate into molecular hydrogen and nitrogen.  If that is then vented, it will burn most enthusiastically.

    That could have been enough heat and shock to initiate detonation in the granular nitrate, some was apparently stored outdoors, without any safety barriers between the various sections. (it was planting season, so having a lot on hand is to be expected)

    This planet needs a lot more kids who think taking a lawnmower apart is more fun than playing a videogame.

    by rjnerd on Thu Apr 18, 2013 at 08:22:53 PM PDT

  •  An anhydrous ammonia tank breach would (0+ / 0-)

    not generate a BLEVE-type explosion.   Ammonia will not
    rapidly oxydize unless raised to a very high temperature with significant residence time in the absence of an industrial system-style oxidation catalyst.

    •  You are confusing this. (0+ / 0-)

      All a BLEVE is, is a substance changing states under pressure. Has nothing to do with chemical processes. You need a change in state under pressure, a weakening of the vessel skin (corrosion, heat, or mechanical) and viola! So, while I think the AN could have caused this explosion, it is entirely possible and not without precedent that a BLEVE could have occurred as well.

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