The Department of Homeland Security requires fertilizer plants with at least 400 pounds of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate to report to it in order to trigger safety oversight. But the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and obliterating a small town in the process, reportedly had more than 1,350 times that amount–roughly 270 tons, according to Reuters.

And the DHS apparently wasn’t even aware of the plant’s existence.

“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”


Failure to report significant volumes of hazardous chemicals at a site can lead the DHS to fine or shut down fertilizer operations, a person familiar with the agency’s monitoring regime said. Though the DHS has the authority to carry out spot inspections at facilities, it has a small budget for that and only a “small number” of field auditors, the person said.

Firms are responsible for self reporting the volumes of ammonium nitrate and other volatile chemicals they hold to the DHS, which then helps measure plant risks and devise security and safety plans based on them.

Since the agency never received any so-called top-screen report from West Fertilizer, the facility was not regulated or monitored by the DHS under its CFAT standards, largely designed to prevent sabotage of sites and to keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.

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Further calling into question the safety of the company–and fertilizer plants in general–The Associated Press reported that West Fertilizer didn’t have sprinklers, firewalls or a water deluge system, something it noted was “not unusual.”

— Posted by Tracy Bloom.

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