Athens Review, Athens, Texas

July 3, 2013

AFD refutes report

Assistant fire chief says fertilizer facilities are stable

Rich Flowers
The Athens Review

ATHENS — Athens Fire Department Assistant Chief Brandon Blue spoke to the Athens Kiwanis Club Wednesday to refute some of the claims in recent media accounts concerning a fertilizer distribution site in the city.

Until the deadly explosion and fire in West, Texas, in April, businesses storing ammonium nitrate around the state operated without getting much attention. For years, tons of ammonium nitrate have been transported each week to and from storage at the Ag Services location on Larkin Street in Athens.

The business on Larkin Street, just a block from the courthouse square, was the focus of a June 19 report on WFAA TV (Channel 8) in Dallas.

“I’m not bashing Channel 8 or anything, but they made it seem like we’re sitting on a time bomb that’s just waiting to go,” Blue said. “They had very good intentions, trying to make people aware about what we actually have stored inside the city.”

The Channel 8 story raised concerns that the fertilizer was being kept in an old, wooden structure. The television report stated, “Nothing illegal is going on. In fact, what's inside is typically harmless.”

“In West, a lot of bad things happened at the right time,” Blue said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible here, but I’m saying it’s not probable.”

Blue said even if the ammonium nitrate is stored in a metal building with concrete walls, under the wrong conditions, it can still be hazardous.

“The problem is not the building. The problem is the product,” Blue said.

Blue said AFD went to the Larkin Street facility after the explosion in West to see if it was compliant with all of the regulations. The owner had complied with some minor deficiencies found in a previous inspection.

“Inside that building, it’s not all ammonium nitrate. There are just two separate bins that contain ammonium nitrate,” Blue said.

The trucks make deliveries to the building of 25 tons or more of ammonium nitrate, but most of it is soon on its way to the customers.

“That’s a considerable amount of ammonium nitrate,” Blue said. “But when they order that and store it there, about 80 percent to 90 percent is already sold. They don’t order that until they can distribute it to the ranches and farms.”

AFD has an incident action plan that tells the department how to respond to any fire at that location, Blue said. The Channel 8 report made it seem like the only plan of action would be to evacuate the building. Blue explained that would be the last resort in any location.

“That is the very last case scenario,” Blue said.

Blue said AFD trains its personnel to be ready for various types of emergencies.

“That’s not the only thing we practice,” Blue said. “We practice how to deal with car wrecks, grass fires and other things.”

Blue said the El Dorado facility on Farm-to-Market Road 753, just outside the city and near Athens Middle School, has also been checked out.

“After the situation in West, we did a more thorough investigation into both facilities,” Blue said. “We sent the county fire marshal and the chief out there (to the El Dorado facility) and we were really impressed with the operation out there. All of their buildings were pretty sound and up to date. It’s in great condition.”