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I-Team: What Went Wrong At West Fertilizer Plant

FORT WORTH (CBS 11 NEWS) - Industry experts are calling the massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas the result of "the perfect storm."

While ammonium nitrate is powerful enough to make bombs in Afghanistan, it's also been used for crop production in America for decades. CBS 11 Investigative reporter Ginger Allen talked with owners of other fertilizer companies who say it's rare for all the components of the fire triangle to come together and ignite inside a fertilizer plant.

The mixture of piles of ammonium nitrate, the initial fire, oxygen and a fuel -- either diesel from equipment or water -- may have triggered the explosion.  CBS 11 has learned the water used to fight the flames in the initial fire could have made it worse. It's a scenario state investigators are also considering.

"In a hazardous materials chemical situation like that, to cool the surrounding environments to cool the tanks to keep them from cooking off or exploding. So again, too soon to really speculate. Was it at the right place at the right time, but i don't think we should be second-guessing right now the actions of the first responders and whether they were applying the water at the appropriate places at the appropriate time," said Nim Kidd, DPS Emergency Management Chief.

West Fertilizer Company, now owned by Adair Grain Incorporated, has been in business since 1962.  The fertilizer mixing and storage facility contains bins for both dry and wet fertilizer.

The CBS 11 I-Team found that in 2002, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated a dust complaint. In 2006, a woman in the area complained of "a strong ammonia smell."  There were follow-ups to those incidents.  A report sent to CBS 11 Investigative reporter Ginger Allen states, "The TCEQ has not received any complaints regarding this facility" for nearly seven years.

Since the Oklahoma City bombing and tightened enforcement by state and local governments, most Texas fertilizer plants have stopped processing ammonium nitrate.   Nearly a dozen other plants similar to West Fertilizer process it.

Two tall white tanks on the West Fertilizer property contained anhydrous ammonia, which is used to make ammonium nitrate.  To put this in perspective, Timothy McVeigh used two thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate to blow up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. State records show west had a permit to store nearly 50-thousand pounds.

The Texas Commercial Fertilizer Control Act contains an entire subchapter on how to produce, store, sell and transport the chemical. Owners must fence the facility a certain way, inspect it daily, keep inventory -- all requirements that will be reviewed in weeks and months ahead.

When CBS 11's Ginger Allen talked to the owner of West Fertilizer, Donald Adair, immediately after this explosion, he confirmed he had never had a problem like this.

Many experts say more regulations are not needed regarding ammonium nitrate and fertilizer plants due to a relative safe history.

However, internal emails obtained by the CBS 11 I-Team, confirm agricultural associations and businesses all around the country are reassuring their employees and reassessing their own crisis plans.

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