West Fertilizer Co.’s problems complying with Texas environmental rules go back decades, state records show.
In 1984, the company moved two large pressurized tanks of liquid anyhydrous ammonia, a potentially lethal poison, from a site in nearby Hill County to its current location in West without notifying state authorities.
Seven years passed before Texas regulators took notice and told the company to fix its paperwork. The tanks had sat at their new location, near homes, schools and a nursing home, with little or no state oversight for all that time.
The company’s regulatory history going back to 1976 comes to light as investigators seek the cause of last week’s fertilizer explosion that killed at least 14 people.
For example, in 1987, the company — then known as West Chemical and Fertilizer Co. — was venting ammonia that built up in transfer pipes into the air despite explicit orders in its permit not to do so. The company apparently changed its practices.
And in 2006, a West police officer called a company employee to tell him an ammonia tank valve was leaking. The employee confirmed the leak and “took the NH3 [ammonia] tank out to the country at his farm,” according to a handwritten note. “West Police followed him.”
That employee, Cody Dragoo, was killed in last week’s explosion.
Documents in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s files were scanned and posted online by Justin Ripple of Banks Environmental Data, a consulting firm in Austin.
Past and current owners and managers of the small company, founded in 1962, have declined to answer questions about its operations or the explosion.
Nearly all the permit files deal with anhydrous ammonia, a liquid fertilizer kept under pressure and classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as an extremely hazardous chemical — meaning a leak of its gas could kill large numbers of people.
Tons of solid-form ammonium nitrate fertilizer at the company are the focus of the explosion inquiry. Texas officials said the Office of the Texas State Chemist, which regulates fertilizer, visited the company 12 times in 2012 and found no problems with the management of its material.
The chemist’s office, a division of Texas A&M University, is fighting a Dallas Morning News request for inspection and inventory records, citing national security concerns regarding ammonium nitrate, which can be highly explosive and used in bombs.
Most uses of ammonium nitrate are still lightly regulated compared with anhydrous ammonia. West Fertilizer sold both products to local farmers.
The anhydrous ammonia was in two 12,000-gallon tanks immediately next to the fertilizer plant, which the explosion wiped off the map. Ironically, aerial photos after the blast indicate that the tanks survived.
Permit files show the company got its first tanks in 1963 from Monsanto, the giant agricultural corporation. The earliest state documents, from 1976, show that tanks were installed at Farmer’s Gin Co. in Abbott, a small Hill County town just north of West.
Although West Chemical already had its tanks, it was applying for a construction permit authorizing them from the Texas Air Control Board, a now-defunct state agency.
State permit reviewers foresaw no emissions problems with the tanks. “Should be okay,” one wrote.
The air agency granted the permit in January 1977. “Thank you for your interest and cooperation in air pollution control,” agency executive director Charles R. Barden wrote the company in a form letter.
The permit stated explicitly that “this permit is non-transferrable from person to person or from place to place.” It also contained special provisions, including a requirement that when moving the product, “all vapors vented through the compressor and never vented directly to the atmosphere.”
It went on: “When relieving pressure from the connectors all vapors shall be bled into an adequate volume of water and never directly to the atmosphere.”
However, in August 1984, the company appears to have directly violated a permit requirement. It moved the tanks to West without telling the state.
“The anhydrous ammonia storage was moved from Abbott, Texas, to West, Texas,” stated a permit renewal form, apparently filled out by the company in 1991. “Operations at Abbott were ceased at that time.”
Even when the problem came to light, state regulators seemed to react with little concern. They voided the old permit and expressed gratitude to the company.
“Thank you for informing us of the status of this facility,” Cecil Bradford, a permits official, wrote to West Chemical in January 1992.
That same year, the state issued a citation because the company had moved two smaller ammonia tanks of 6,000 gallons each to its property in West without a required construction permit. The company settled the matter by agreeing not to store ammonia in them.
There is evidence in the files, however, that the state had already overlooked the matter of whether the tanks were where the permit said they were. In 1987, a state inspector found “no violation … but a potential problem” because the company was venting ammonia into the air.
Only after the state visit did the company change its venting practices, records show.
Throughout the mid-1990s, the plant’s neighbors complained often about ammonia odors from the company.
A neighbor reported “strong anhydrous ammonia odor at her house on Jane Lane.” Another “alleged that strong ammonia odors had intermittently been coming from the West Chemical and Fertilizer facility.”
That happened repeatedly, but each time a state inspector arrived, usually days later, he couldn’t smell any ammonia or find any leaks.
At one point, the smells were attributed to the sewers. Once, however, the company acknowledged a leak and said it was being vented into a container of water, a proper procedure.
The files contain few details about the incident with the leaking tank taken out into the country.
It was June 9, 2006. The handwritten note reads:
“NH3 tank #43 leaking and West Police Department called Cody. Cody Dragoo came out. The valve was stuck and could not be shut off.
“Cody took the NH3 tank out to the country at his farm. Officer [illegible] investigated.
“West Police followed him.”
When he died April 17, Dragoo was 50 years old.