A deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant last year has a  government watchdog agency calling on federal agencies  to assume a greater role in preventing accidents from  ammonium nitrate (AN).

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has  recommended that OSHA, EPA and the Department of  Homeland Security (DHS) take action after its investigation  found numerous gaps in federal oversight of AN facilities.  GAO’s investigation was launched at the request of  members of Congress after some 30 tons of AN detonated  during a fire at a plant in West, Texas in April 2013.  The  incident resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen  people and extensive property damage.

OSHA’s explosives regulations,, which have not been  significantly revised since 1971, apply to AN facilities. The  OSHA regulations allow the substance to be stored in  wooden buildings, which increases the fire and explosion  hazard, GAO said in a report released May 21.  In addition,  GAO asserted OSHA has done little outreach to increase  awareness of its rules within the fertilizer industry, a  primary user of AN.  OSHA’s high hazard workplace  inspection program does not target AN facilities and,  according to GAO, information on these facilities is not  available to OSHA to use for targeting. 

Other OSHA and EPA chemical safety regulations require  facilities to complete hazard assessments, use procedures  to prevent and respond to accidents and conduct routine  compliance audits, but the rules do not apply to AN,  according to GAO.

GAO said the total number and location of U.S. facilities  storing AN is unknown.  However, the facilities that  reported to DHS as having reportable quantities of  ammonium nitrate were most often engaged in supplying  and supporting the agriculture and mining industries.   Neither OSHA nor EPA has reporting requirements;  however, DHS requires facilities storing reportable  quantities to provide the information for security  purposes.  Federal law also requires certain facilities to  report their AN holdings to state and local agencies for  emergency response purposes, but the data is not  routinely shared with federal authorities.  Under a 2013  Executive Order, federal agencies are exploring options for  improving data sharing, but this effort remains unfinished.

“Federal data provide insight into the number of facilities  in the United States with ammonium nitrate, but do not  provide a complete picture because of reporting  exemptions and other data limitations,” GAO wrote.

Federal agencies should improve data sharing among  themselves and with the states, OSHA and EPA should  consider revising their related regulations to cover AN, and  OSHA ought to conduct outreach to the fertilizer industry  and target high risk facilities for inspection, GAO  recommended.

Steps to improve communications have already been taken,  the auditors noted in their report.  For instance, OSHA  recently published information and updated its website to  explain how its regulations on explosives and blasting  agents at 29 CFR 1910.109 apply to AN fertilizer, what legal  requirements apply and how to store and handle AN safely.   An August 2013 advisory – issued jointly by OSHA, EPA and  the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – highlighted  OSHA’s regulations for fertilizer-grade AN.