For some, Tuesday’s deadly explosion in Beirut, which officials say was caused by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, was a grim reminder of a 2013 disaster in the city of West, Texas.
In April of that year, a fertilizer plant exploded after more than 80,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate caught fire, killing 15 people, injuring more than 200 and causing significant damage to nearby buildings. The explosion was so powerful that it was recorded as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale.
In response to that tragedy, the EPA under the Obama administration finalized a new Chemical Disaster Rule that was meant to prevent similar disasters from occurring by strengthening chemical safety and storage procedures. But that rule was largely rolled back in November 2019, amid outcry from environmentalists and some local governments.
Now, the explosion in Beirut is bringing renewed scrutiny to chemical safety regulations in the U.S.
"We've gone backwards instead of forward in terms of addressing some of the underlying risks that exist with the storage of this kind of material," said Elena Craft, senior director of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. "I think the bottom line is these incidents are preventable and we're not doing enough to prevent them."
The rule would have provided more public transparency regarding which hazardous chemicals are stored at sites, increased coordination with first responders and required a "root-cause" analysis after big chemical releases, among other things. But, critics said it provided unnecessary regulatory burdens and increased the risk of terrorist attacks by disclosing where hazardous chemicals are stored.
Though Texas state government leaders praised the updated rule, Harris County sued the EPA in February over the rollbacks.
“The federal government is failing in its responsibility to protect us from dangerous chemical accidents,” read a statement from Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.
The Houston area has had at least five chemical explosions since March 2019.
And Craft, with the EDF, said she worries that without stricter regulations and more transparency these types of disasters will continue to happen.
"I think the part that is probably more concerning is the fact that we don't even know where these threats may exist," Craft said. "Because there's a lack of transparency around some of these facilities, I'm not sure that we can really assess the true risk in the state."
In Texas, one of the main uses of ammonium nitrate is as fertilizer.
Jake Mowrer, a soil chemist at Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service, said it's fairly inexpensive to produce, and when handled properly, it's safer than other fertilizer sources that can be caustic to skin and lungs.
But its volatility has put it at the center of some of the country’s worst disasters. In 1995, American terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols reportedly used ammonium nitrate in the Oklahoma City bombing.
And in 1947, an ammonium nitrate explosion in Texas City caused one of the deadliest industrial accidents in American history. On April 16 of that year, a French ship docked in the port of Texas City carrying more than 2,000 tons of the compound exploded, leading to a chain of fires and explosions on other ships across the port before spreading to the nearby Monsanto chemical plant. More than 500 people died.
"It's a double-edged sword here that we have a lot of really beneficial uses of this chemical, but it can be used maliciously and has been," Mowrer said.
Mowrer said since the 2013 West explosion, the use of ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer has gone down in Texas.
"Up until West it was probably one of the most commonly used fertilizers in the world," he said. "After West, at least in the U.S., because of the regulations and the insurance required to store it, it just became less and less available."
Although national regulations for storing dangerous chemicals have been rolled back, Texas passed a state law in 2015 strengthening some storage rules specifically for ammonium nitrate.
"We've had other chemical fires in this state over the last year that we don't seem to be addressing in a forward manner, but rather in a backend manner," Mowrer said. "I think this is not that case. They really put a lid on ammonium nitrate."
Still, a recent investigation by The Center for Public Integrity found that, nationwide, ammonium nitrate isn't closely regulated and public information about it is often scarce.