Winston-Salem fertilizer fire reveals regulatory loopholes, spurs hard questions about building and workplace safety

Winston-Salem fertilizer fire reveals regulatory loopholes, spurs hard questions about building and workplace safety

- in Environment, Top Story
A portion of the ruins of the Weaver Fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem. It caught fire on Jan. 31. This photo was taken Feb. 6, and the material was still smoldering. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Owners of the Weaver Fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem failed to submit a required chemical inventory to the NC Department of Public Safety in 2020, a key piece of information for state and local emergency officials — and a symptom of the lack of oversight of facilities nationwide that handle ammonium nitrate.

Nearly 600 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire at the Weaver plant on Jan. 31 and burned for four days. The risk of explosion was so great that Winston-Salem officials asked people to evacuate within a mile radius, temporarily displacing 6,000 residents. Residents are now allowed back into their homes, although on Feb. 6, the ruins were still smoldering.

Whether Weaver Fertilizer is also required to file an emergency response plan hinges on that inventory, according to Keith Acree, public information officer with the NC Department of Public Safety. Without the chemical inventory, “it’s unknown if an emergency response plan is required,” Acree wrote in an email.

Plant owners have yet to file an inventory for 2021, Acree said. The deadline is March 1.

Weaver Fertilizer spokesman Andrew Carroll did not respond to questions from Policy Watch about the chemical inventory and the emergency plan. He referred those questions to the Winston-Salem Fire Department. A city spokesman told Policy Watch the company had not filed an emergency response plan. However, the fire department had its own, the spokesman said.

A problem national in scope

The lack of transparency about ammonium nitrate and the facilities that make, store, and sell it is a national problem. The National Fire Protection Association, the Government Accountability Office, U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board members, and environmental advocates have all advocated for stronger regulations of ammonium nitrate to protect the public from disasters.

Ammonium nitrate is used to make fertilizers and explosives. Although it isn’t inherently explosive, ammonium nitrate can catch fire, smolder or explode under certain circumstances, such as if it is stored in a confined space or comes into contact with hot materials.

That’s what occurred during a separate incident at Weaver Fertilizer on Dec. 26, 2021, when an electrical failure caused machinery to stop operating properly and dropped hot material into the pile. The material smoldered and became “molten,” according to the incident report. Neighborhoods nearly two miles away were draped in smoke.

This wasn’t the first fertilizer fire in the U.S. or in North Carolina. In 2011, the Halifax fertilizer plant in Enfield caught fire, also because of an electrical short. Most of the plant was destroyed, but no one was injured. The year before, the EPA had fined Halifax Fertilizer $11,800 for failing to submit its emergency and hazards chemical inventory forms. (Several of the owners of Weaver Fertilizer — G. Dallas Barnes, Joshua Abrahams and Jeffrey T. Vinson — also own Halifax Fertilizer, but they bought it after the fire. The men also own Meherrin Fertilizer in Severn.)

Roughly 250 tons — far less than the amount at Weaver Fertilizer — ignited in West, Texas, in 2013. The explosion killed 15 people and destroyed or damaged more than 200 homes. In 1995, in Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh detonated a massive car bomb using two tons of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel, killing 168 people and injuring more than 500.

And in 1994, an explosion at an ammonium nitrate factory in Iowa killed four workers and injured 18 people. 

Ammonium nitrate is dangerous enough that the National Fire Protection Association incorporated a new section about it into their 2013 and 2016 codes. However, these guidelines are voluntary. Weaver did not voluntarily adhere to many of the recommendations, including protecting the material “from becoming contaminated or molten and confined.”

For facilities that handle more than a half ton of ammonium nitrate — such as Weaver — the NFPA recommends sprinklers should be installed, especially for existing buildings made of wood. 

The Weaver plant had no sprinklers; two of the five buildings were wooden, according to property records. Sprinklers were not required because the plant was constructed according to the Building Code at the time — 1939. Even when part of the plant was remodeled, these improvements were not required because the building was only one story.

The Government Accountability Office noted in its 2014 report about the shortcomings of ammonium nitrate regulations that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not significantly changed its storage regulations since 1971. That is still the case.

OSHA allows the use of storage buildings that don’t comply with regulations as long as it “doesn’t constitute a hazard to life,” according to the GAO. “OSHA and EPA’s regulations contain gaps with respect to ammonium nitrate that may allow unsafe facilities to operate and poor planning to persist.”

OSHA did fine Weaver Fertilizer $25,000 for a different workplace hazard in 2007. In June of that year, an employee was fatally electrocuted by a 120-volt electrical cord. In 2013, OSHA fined the company $9,100 for 13 “serious” violations and three classified as “other.”

The NFPA code also advises that plants should operate at least 2,275 feet —nearly a half mile — from “inhabited buildings.” According to the Forsyth County tax parcel viewer, more than 100 homes are within that distance from the plant. Most of the residents in those census blocks are persons of color and/or low-income, according to the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Community Mapping System.

The NFPA code recommends that the facilities should provide public notification siren systems “capable of notifying individuals within a mile of the need to evacuate.” It’s unclear if Weaver had installed those sirens, but so far, the only public reports of evacuation alerts came from the city fire department.

Andrew Carroll, the Weaver Fertilizer spokesman, did not answer questions about the sirens and other specifics of the NFPA code. He issued a statement: “Our focus right now is on cleaning up the plant, supporting our employees, and providing support to the community. We are assisting the Winston-Salem Fire Department and regulatory and city officials in their investigation into the cause of the fire and we will await the completion of their investigation. We remain grateful to the fire responders for their heroic work that left no employees or citizens injured.”

“A situation in which people just hope for the best”

Despite ammonium nitrate’s poor track record, the EPA does not regulate it under more stringent hazardous waste rules. Instead the agency classifies it as a “special health hazard,” and exempts its reporting under the Risk Management Plan rule, also known as RMP.

Under the Clean Air Act, the RMP rule requires facilities that use extremely hazardous substances to develop a Risk Management Plan. These plans must be revised and resubmitted to the EPA every five years. 

The RMP is already weak, critics say. The Obama administration omitted ammonium nitrate from the RMP rules, as has the Biden administration, at least so far.

Rafael Moure-Eraso was the chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazards Investigation Board from 2010 to 2015. He led the investigation into the West Texas ammonium nitrate explosion. (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attributed the fire to arson, but has yet to produce evidence proving this was the cause.)

“I think it’s a high-risk substance,” Moure-Eraso told Policy Watch. “We have to face that. Yes, it could be used safely. Around the country there are 12,000 places with ammonia nitrate and I’m sure that a substantial number of them are doing the right thing. But this chemical is very bad news. This is a chemical that requires attention.”

After the West Texas disaster, the chemical board recommended that ammonium nitrate receive more federal oversight. It also advised that OSHA mandate nonflammable storage bins and water sprinklers for facilities that handle ammonium nitrate. Neither recommendation has become a rule.

“We’ve created a situation in which people just hope for the best,” Moure-Eraso said. “And I think it’s very dangerous to hope for the best.”

Moure-Eraso said the fertilizer and chemical industries have long opposed any further regulation of ammonium nitrate. He cited the Weaver fire and the evacuations as “a consequence of this effort to avoid, basically a regulation at any price, of a chemical that they say very profitable for the industry.”

The Fertilizer Institute did not respond to an email asking about the lack of regulation. A statement on the group’s website said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the citizens and first responders of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.”

The fertilizer industry co-sponsors Responsible Ag, which is “committed to helping agribusinesses property store and handle farm input supplies,” according to the website. “The program helps members ensure they are compliant with environmental, health, safety and security regulations to keep employees, customers and our communities safe.”

Names, locales of facilities shrouded in secrecy

While environmental regulations for ammonium nitrate are arguably lax, the public information rules are quite strict. An estimated 1,345 facilities in 47 states reported having the material in 2013, according to a Government Accountability Office report released the following year. 

However, it is practically impossible to know the names of the facilities, even within the federal government. OSHA has limited access to information collected by other agencies, according to the GAO report, because the Department of Homeland Security does not share it.

DPS spokesman Acree told Policy Watch that the federal law — the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 — prohibits the state from supplying to the public a comprehensive list of the facilities with ammonium nitrate holdings. Instead, requesters must already know the name of the facility to get additional information, Acree said. In addition, previous chemical inventories for Weaver Fertilizer, say from 2019, are not publicly available. Federal law prohibits the disclosure of any inventory list other than the current year’s.

“It’s scary not to know how many more there are,” said Emma Cheuse, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is advocating for stronger RMP rules. “And when an incident like this — in Winston-Salem — occurs, it reminds communities that sometimes there’s an almost invisible serious threat.”

The purpose of reporting under the Risk Management Plan is to prevent catastrophes. “If you have highly hazardous chemicals like ammonium nitrate that’s under- or unregulated, there’s a ticking time bomb,” Cheuse said. “It’s leaving communities completely in the dark and unprotected.”