Is it safe living by a fertilizer plant?

Is it safe living by a fertilizer plant?

ELKHART — Placing his sandwich on the plastic plate and wiping his mouth with a napkin, Elkhart Fire Chief Jim Bob Parker laid out the plan should the Eldorado Agriculture Plant explode.
"If it catches fire, we are going to evacuate. That is our plan," Parker, also the Elkhart State Bank president, said.

Worrisome thoughts in this town of about 1,400 residents south of Palestine have turned to the plant following the deadly explosion on April 17 at a fertilizer company in the town of West near Waco. The blast killed more than a dozen people, injured more than 160 and damaged more than 150 buildings.

Parker worries whether Elkhart could be fully evacuated in the event a similar disaster.

The Eldorado Agriculture Plant stores highly flammable and potentially explosive ammonium nitrate — the same substance that exploded at the West plant. 

Elkhart has no police department, and firefighters would need help from the Department of Public Safety, Anderson County Sheriff's Office and constables for any evacuation needs.

The city has one emergency siren, and Parker said the old siren's range is limited and unable to warn everyone of a potential problem. 

The Eldorado facility in Elkhart is next to train tracks laid in 1872 by the International Great Northern Railroad, which runs through the town.

The Elkhart Fire Department and the aged downtown area, with its businesses adorned with weather-battered awnings, are within a half mile of Eldorado.

Also within a half mile are Elkhart State Bank, Elkhart Elementary School, First United Methodist Church of Elkhart, Mill Run Apartments, the Elkhart Oaks Care Center for senior residents and a bevy of homes.

Elkhart is, in many ways, a carbon copy of West.

"When we saw an aerial map of West, we knew we had better get busy and initiate meetings to address this safety concern," Parker said. "Our town is almost a mirror image of West, and we see what happened there."

The bank president, who has served as the volunteer fire department's chief for 40-plus years, works daily in his office just across the street from Eldorado, and he admitted the "what if?" thought had crossed his mind.

"I live just across the other street, and the fire station is across the other street, so I am not in a safe zone at home or work in the event of some type of explosion," he said.

Feelings about Eldorado vary throughout the town, with some residents concerned and others unaware of what happened in West.

Lifelong Elkhart resident Jan Stuteville, 55, related by marriage to the former owners of the Elkhart Farmer's Co-op, which is now the fertilizer plant, said she had never given the plant a second thought until the West explosion. 

Looking out of the window of the Anderson County Housing Authority, where she works, Mrs. Stuteville said that after the West explosion, her pastor looked up Eldorado and learned the company had ammonium nitrate. 

"I had never really thought about it, but I'm sitting here right across the street at work all day," she said. "If anything happens over there during the day, then my plan is to run out of the back door."

Carla Sheridan, the city of Elkhart water and sewage billing clerk, said she also is worried. 

"No one thought about it until West, and since then we've been talking about it a lot around here," she said. "It makes me a little nervous."

John Carver, Eldorado Chemical Co. vice president of safety and environmental compliance, said the Elkhart location can store up to 5,000 tons of the fertilizer and is the largest of the company's 15 locations in Texas.

The company also has plants in Tyler, Athens and Pittsburgh. Most of the other Eldorado facilities in Texas only store 100 to 500 tons of the fertilizer.

The West Fertilizer company had 2,400 tons stored there on the day of the explosion, according to news reports.

Carver said Eldorado went into business in 1983 and acquired the plants in Texas, including Elkhart, just a few years ago. 

"We have 17 of what we call agricultural locations, that are dry bulk fertilizer blending locations," Carver said. "We don't handle liquid fertilizer and don't handle anhydrous ammonia, so we are definitely different than West in what we carry. But at West, they are saying the ammonium nitrate, like what we store, is what detonated, but we do not know what caused it to detonate."

Earlier this week, investigators completed their scene investigation in West but did not pinpoint a cause. They have not ruled out criminal activity.

Carver said there are two different grades of ammonium nitrate: Agricultural blend and industrial blend.

The agricultural blend has never been classified as an explosive, but it is the type that was involved in the West explosion. He said the industrial grade has a different density and coating and is meant to be mixed with substances such as diesel fuel.

Carver said his company is examining fertilizer plant locations and discussing whether to move them to more rural locations.

"Most of these locations were built in 1950s or '60s on the edge of towns without any type of zoning or restrictions," he said. "What happened was as the towns grew, they just sprung up around the fertilizer locations.

"I know we are talking about the possibility of moving facilities, and I'm sure it will be discussed in our industry and in the government."

Eldorado's plant in Tyler is in a more remote area north of the city limits on County Road 490. 

Carver pointed out that before the West explosion, most people assumed it was not an explosive concern, "but now it is a real concern," he said.

"We have doubled efforts at all locations to make sure warehouses do not have anything that could cause a fire," he said. "Since West, we are now taking grease guns out of the warehouses at nights and weekends. We are not storing our gasoline equipment or vehicles in the warehouses and are putting them out in another location. We have also contracted with a third-party firm for them to evaluate our company and inspect the risk engineering possibilities."

Carver said that in his time with the company, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had never been to any of the company's agricultural fertilizer locations because they are not atop of the concern list.

He said a Texas Office of State Chemist representative visits regularly but only looks at security, not safety. They make sure ammonium nitrate sales are documented properly.

Carver and Parker both said there have been numerous meetings to develop a plan of action. 

"I'm sure after we learn what caused the ammonium nitrate to explode in West that we will all make immediate changes to ensure that does not happen again," Carver said.

Sitting in Kim's convenience store, after polishing off his sandwich, Parker said the pictures of West resonate with him and reinforce the need for a plan.

That plan calls for moving everyone in the immediate area back a half mile or more from the plant. 

"I didn't have the scope of it, but the pictures show the complete devastation of that town," he said. "Danger is all around us, and you can't think it can't happen here. It could very well be our town."


To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment