Texas fertilizer plant: Why was the blast so enormous?
The explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant had the force of a magnitude 2.1 quake. Here's a look at how the combination of fire and materials at the facility could have produced the blast.
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But the compound begins to decompose into nitrous oxide and water when heated to temperatures above 150 degrees F. – a process that itself releases heat. If temperatures rise to about 400 degrees F. or higher, as in a fire, decomposition can become explosive.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, the largest industrial accident in US history involved 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate tucked in the hold of a cargo ship in Texas City in 1947. The ship was to deliver the fertilizer to Europe. A fire broke out onboard, and after about an hour of fruitless efforts to battle the blaze, the ammonium nitrate exploded.
The blast triggered more explosions and fires, including a blast on a nearby ship that also was carrying ammonium nitrate. The death toll has been estimated at 581 or more.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, a fertilizer factory in Toulouse, France, exploded. The blast involved between 200 and 300 tons of ammonium nitrate pellets. Some 31 people died and more than 2,400 were injured. The blast left an enormous crater – and a cleanup bill that reportedly reached 3.2 billion euros.
In the case of the explosion in the small community of West, the plant itself was destroyed, along with up to 75 homes, a middle school, and a nursing home in a four-block area nearby.
West Fertilizer Co. is bounded on the east by farmland. But to the west, a single set of railroad tracks is all that separated the facility from homes and the middle school.
Records from the US Environmental Protection Agency show that in 2006, the agency fined West Fertilizer Co. for having an inadequate plan to deal with risks at the site, according local press reports. The same year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a citation to the company for failing to apply for or qualify for a permit, after residents nearby complained about strong ammonia odors.
Following Wednesday's explosion, the US Chemical Safety Board and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have sent investigators to determine a cause.
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