The Dallas Morning News reports that investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board flew to Texas to begin probing the cause of the fire and explosion at West Fertilizer Co.
So far the death toll is much lower than feared.
The Morning News quoted Sgt. Jason Reyes, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, as saying the death toll is 12. Search and rescue teams were looking for further victims, or even survivors.
Thinkprogress.org reports the plant was inspected in 2011 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. A $10,100 fine was issued for missing placards and “not having a security plan” in violation of Hazardous Materials Regulations. The fine was reduced to $5,250 after corrective actions were taken.
Tony Muska, the mayor and a volunteer firefighter in the town of 2,800 near Waco, told the Christian Science Monitor the blast was “like a nuclear bomb … big old mushroom cloud."
Some had a few minutes notice of the danger and warned people off. More than 75 homes, a nursing home and school were destroyed. Some firefighters were trapped inside and died., including members of the local volunteer fire department.
Russian Television said the most likely cause was anhydrous ammonia. RT said it has caused thousands of death, in Russia, the US and elsewhere, since its invention.
Waco Assistant Fire Chief Don Yeager told AFP the fertilizer plant had 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, and it was the cause of the explosion.
Associated Press said the plant had last been inspected by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration 28 years ago.
AP said records show The Occupational Safety and Health Administration most recently inspected the Texas fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday night in 1985. AP obtained records that show the plant was fined $30 for a “seriously violation for the storage of anhydrous ammonia.
Four other serious violations of respiratory protection standards were discovered but no fines issued.
Fox News said the state cited the plant in 2006 for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit. West Fertilizer Co. was cited by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality after it received a complaint in June of a strong ammonia smell emanating from the 1,500-square foot facility, Fox said.
Federal and state monitoring of accident reports has declined sharply in recent years, says the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity found that the number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006. The CPI says 13 investigations are incomplete, according to the Center, a Washington, D.C.-based investigative news organization.
“The most likely cause of the powerful explosion is the ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer and pesticide, which is also a powerful explosive and is known to have caused quite a number of disasters around the world,” UK chemist Christopher Busby told RT. “America’s most deadly disaster, in Texas City in 1947, happened when a fire detonated 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate stored on a ship.”
Anhydrous ammonia is the chemical cousin of ammonia nitrate, used by the Oklahoma City bombers.
The Waco Herald said the fertilizer plant was operating under permit rules designed to protect the surrounding neighborhood. Earlier this year a plant fire caused the evacuation of a nearby school.