Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

May 12, 2013

Could it happen here? Emergency, industrial watchdogs await West report

By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun

Corsicana — Fertilizer plant officials and emergency responders are in limbo now, at least until the state and federal investigators issue a report on what happened April 17 in West. For officials with the Eldorado fertilizer company and local rescue workers it’s a matter of covering their bases until they have more information.

Eldorado has a plant at 100 N. Seventh Street in Corsicana where the ammonium nitrate is kept in wooden bins next to the pot ash and other agricultural products.

“The incident that happened in West is totally atypical,” said John Carver, a spokesman for Eldorado. The company has 15 plants across Texas. “Under normal conditions ammonium nitrate is not explosive, period. You can take a hammer to it. You can take a torch to it. It’s just not explosive under normal conditions. There’s something peculiar that happened in West to cause that ammonium nitrate to explode, and right now none of us know.”

In the meantime, the company is bringing in a consulting firm that specializes in risk evaluation and risk engineering to visit each of the company’s sites, Carver said.

“They’re going to visit each one of our locations and get a different set of eyes on each of our locations, where we store material, how we store it and things like that,” Carver said. “We are doing that while we await the cause of the explosion in West.”

Eldorado’s Carver said he and others in the industry hope the various investigative agencies will release a cause report for the West explosion quickly.

“If there’s something we need to be aware of as an industry we need to know soon so we can go ahead and make whatever adjustments that need to be done,” he said.

Emergency responses

Companies aren’t alone in anxiously looking to the ATF and Texas Fire Marshall’s Office for answers on the explosion. Fire and emergency responders are also wondering what they can do better in a similar scenario.

Planning for those scenarios is up to the Corsicana Fire Department and the Navarro County Emergency Management Operations Coordinator Eric Meyers.

To prepare for contingencies, the Corsicana Fire Department has a rough floorplan of each of the city’s industrial facilities, indicating things firefighters will need to know, such as locations for electricity and gas mains, explained Fire Chief Donald McMullan.

“We have pre–fire plans,” McMullan said. “When we got out and inspect a facility they do a pre-fire plan. It has entrances and exits, hydrants. It’s a simplified blueprint that has the key factors we need, like gas shut-offs. If we have a haz–mat cabinet or room, or a large facility like Corsicana Tech, we rely on their safety people.”

“Overall, we get great cooperation from them,” he said.

Making plans

The Office of Emergency Management has a series of action plans for tornadoes, chemical spills, terrorist attacks, radioactive contamination, train derailments, explosions and more.

“The city and the county have an all hazards plan that covers everything from natural disasters to terrorism,” Meyers said. “We have site-specific plans for each facility. We work with the facilities to identify hazards. They have to have facility responses so if an incident occurs we know before going in what we’re facing.”

Not all the vulnerable sites in the county sit out in the open. Gas and petroleum pipelines criss-cross the county just beneath the landscape’s surface like an underground highway system.

“Out in the county, it’s pipeline and petroleum companies,” Meyers said. “We find them very receptive as well.”

VFD responses

It’s also a matter of keeping the volunteer fire departments in the loop, both in training and risk awareness, Meyers said. Since West, there’s been more focus on fertilizer plants, and on volunteer fire departments. Like Eldorado, the volunteers don’t know if they should be doing something different, either.

“I think this is a two-way street. It’s not just the facilities, but also the public safety agencies knowing what they should do when they get on the scene,” Meyers said.

Like Corsicana’s fire department, the responders out in the county have reams of plans. But how they respond is dictated as much by the early information they get, McMullan said.

They rely on the first 9-1-1 call, and the first emergency responders on the scene to do a kind of triage. That first assessment will decide whether to make a stand and fight the fire, or to move back and evacuate.

“That first engine and officer is going to make the determination,” McMullan said. “He determines whether it’s going to be a defensive or offensive mode.”

Highways, byways

The site-specific threats are one thing, but that’s like trying to keep watch on a tame campfire when there are fireworks shooting through the woods.

Hazardous materials roll up and down Interstate 45 at all hours of the day going 75 miles an hour, and multiple ribbons of railroads bring whole tankers full of hazardous materials into the heart of the city and through neighborhoods both affluent and poor.

“When you look at Corsicana, the railroad lines and highways, all the things that come through this community day or night, it’s just fortunate we haven’t had more incidents than we have,” said Corsicana Fire Chief Donald McMullan. “But this is daily life and people don’t think about it until something happens.”

Meyers agreed.

“This is a major crossroads,” he said of Corsicana. “People focus on the fertilizer plants but much greater hazards are on the railroads and interstate.”


Janet Jacobs may be reached via email at Want to “sound off” to this article? Email: