Athens Review, Athens, Texas

June 11, 2013

Officials: We are prepared

Local school administrators, fire agencies keeping eye on fertilizer sites in Athens

Rich Flowers
The Athens Review

ATHENS — In the wake of the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, Henderson County and Athens officials are taking a closer look at similar operations close to home.

Locally, tons of ammonium nitrate are being transported each week to and from storage at the Ag Services location on Larkin Street in Athens and Eldorado Chemicals on Farm-to-Market Road 753, just outside the city limits. The Larkin Street location is just a block from the courthouse square, while the site on FM 753 is near State Highway 19 south across the street from Athens Middle School.

Athens Independent School District Superintendent Blake Stiles said the district is aware of the safety concerns caused by having the facility near the spot where hundreds of students are attending class.

“I visited with our fire chief and visited with the manager at the Eldorado Company,” Stiles said. “I’m in the process of getting more information on what they have on site at the facility and what their safety measures are.”

Stiles said he is also double checking the AISD strategy for dealing with emergencies.

“We have taken a look at out safety measures and our evacuation plans,” Stiles said. “We do that periodically anyway.”

Athens Fire Chief John McQueary said the fertilizer locations in and around Athens have been in business for years and only recently have started to attract attention. He’s inspected the Larkin Street location and hopes to tour the Eldorado Chemical site, which, being outside the city limits, is actually in the jurisdiction of the Southside Volunteer Fire Department.

“Because I am the fire chief of Athens and we have a middle school there, I have talked to the county fire marshal and told him I would love to go out there and do a site inspection,” McQueary said.

McQueary said he and interim Henderson County Fire Marshal Shane Renberg are planning on inspecting the site and are setting up a time.

“They are more than willing to let us come out and look around,” Renberg said.

McQueary said the local government can take steps to be sure the plants are operating legally.

“Our greatest tool is prevention,” McQueary said. “The best thing we can do is keep something from happening.”

McQueary said although the Larkin Street distribution site has ammonium nitrate on hand, it generally is shipped out within a few days.

Eldorado’s permit allows the company to have 100,000 to 900,000 pounds of fertilizer at the site, but there’s not that much around at any given time, according to officials. For the ammonium nitrate to be a real danger, there has to be some other combustible material nearby. The Eldorado plant in Tyler allows the facility to hold 1 million to 9 million pounds. The West fertilizer plant reported 270 tons to Texas Department of State Health Services.

“Ammonium nitrate can not spontaneously combust. It has to have an outside source,” McQueary said. “If that building caught on fire, we have a two- to four-minute response time to that area. That ammonium’s not going to go off. We’re going to be able to put that out.”

McQueary said combustion would only happen at extreme temperatures commonly found in fires that been burning for an extended amount of time.

TDSHS requires that fertilizer plants file Tier II reports to help local fire departments and emergency planning and response groups to help them. Renberg said the county has plans in place to handle various types of disasters, including a major fire.

  “If there is a fire, the county has an emergency management plan in place,” Renberg said. “I am confident that we will follow that plan.”