A Wake-Up Call from Winston-Salem: EPA Must Act Now to Prevent Chemical Disasters

Sidney Shapiro

Feb. 14, 2022

When the Wake Forest University emergency communications systems called me at 12:01 am on Tuesday, February 1, I could not have guessed that it was about a chemical bomb capable of wiping out blocks and blocks of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The call warned university students to heed the city’s voluntary evacuation of the 6,500 people living within in a one-mile radius of the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant that was on fire — and in danger of exploding.

Thankfully, the fire did not injure anyone, and the bomb did not ignite.

Yet it is a wakeup call — in my case, literally — not only to those of us here in Winston-Salem but across our nation: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to protect the public from exploding fertilizer plants, but it has left them unregulated.

These last few days have been harrowing, to say the least, especially for those forced to evacuate or shelter in place under threat of incineration. But we were lucky. Others haven’t been.

Nearly 600 residents were killed by a massive fertilizer explosion in Texas City, Texas, in 1947. In 2013, a fire at the West Fertilizer plant, located in West, Texas, a town of approximately 2,900 north of Waco, triggered a blast which killed 12 emergency responders and three members of the public, injured 260 people, and caused insurance-related losses of about $230 million. The detonation left a crater 90 feet wide and 10 feet deep — and was felt as far as 142 miles away.

A similar disaster could have easily played out here. When a fire breaks out and the ammonium nitrate stored at fertilizer plants is compacted because a building collapses on top of it or it is stored in a rail car, the heat of the fire can trigger a dangerous explosion. I shudder at the thought of what might have been. There are 500 tons of ammonium nitrate at the fertilizer plant, including 100 tons stored in a nearby parked rail car. As William “Trey” Mayo, our local fire chief, warned, “The fact of the matter is that at the beginning of this incident, there was enough ammonium nitrate on hand for this to be one of the worst explosions in U.S. history.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concluded that the lack of an automatic sprinkler system and the method of storing ammonium nitrate “plausibly contributed” to West, Texas explosion. Like that plant, the Winston-Salem facility did not have a sprinkler system or a fire alarm. The city requires sprinklers and fire alarms for facilities like this one, but the requirement did not apply to the 80-year-old Weaver facility because it was built before the mandate was adopted. The American Chemistry Council warns that “strict fire protections are necessary” at plants storing ammonium nitrate.

While cities can do better, the real problem is that the fertilizer plant was also exempt from regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Clean Air Act requires EPA to regulate industrial facilities that store highly hazardous chemicals, but it has inexplicably exempted ammonium nitrate from the safety requirements of its Accidental Release Prevention/Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule that addresses hazards at the local level. The RMP rule is woefully inadequate in other ways too, the Center for Progressive Reform documented in a recent report.

The only feasible way to protect people is to regulate this hazard. Once the Weaver plant caught fire, Winston-Salem’s only option was a voluntary evaluation because the city was unable to implement and enforce a mandatory evaluation. The city did not have sufficient emergency personnel to ensure people left their homes and businesses and did not return. It also decided not to block off roads near the burning factory because of the disruption and the lack of alternative routes.

At President Biden’s direction, the EPA is currently undertaking a review of RMP rules. Communities that host chemical plants, environmental groups, scientists and health experts, workers, national security experts, and many members of the public have urged EPA to strengthen RMP regulations; include ammonium nitrate facilities under an expanded coverage of the chemical disaster prevention program; and carefully evaluate requiring fertilizer plants to use the safer alternatives that are available.

People living near fertilizer plants should not have to depend on luck to protect themselves and their property. EPA must act now.

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