Cause of Texas fertilizer explosion that killed 15 to be announced

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A deadly fertilizer company explosion rocked this central Texas town. The blast killed at least 14, wounded more than 200 and destroyed dozens of homes in this town of 2,800

The cause of a fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people three years ago in Texas will be revealed at noon Wednesday, officials said.

The news conference will be held by the Houston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office.

Twelve first responders were among the people killed in the April 17, 2013, blast that rocked the town of West, about 70 miles south of Dallas, injuring 200 people and wrecking homes and buildings.

It registered on seismographs as a magnitude-2.1 earthquake and left a crater nearly 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

The ATF has not announced a cause, though the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office has ruled out several possibilities in the last three years.

The explosion tore through the roof of West Fertilizer Co., charring much of the structure and sending massive flames into the air, followed by a plume of smoke bigger than the plant itself. A deafening boom echoed for miles. The blast stripped an apartment complex, with 50 units, of its walls and windows.

It was “massive — just like Iraq, just like the Murrah (Federal) Building in Oklahoma City,” said D.L. Wilson of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The blast came as the nation remained on edge after the Boston Marathon bombing.

About a month after the blast, the state fire marshal’s office said four potential causes — weather, natural causes, anhydrous ammonium, and ammonium nitrate in a rail car — had been eliminated.

State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said investigators were unable to rule out three possible causes, including a spark from a golf cart, an electrical short or an intentionally set fire.

A U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation concluded the blast was preventable, board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said on the one-year anniversary of the blast.

The investigation blamed the company that owned the fertilizer plant, government regulators and other authorities for the incident.

“It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it,” Moure-Eraso said.

The blast happened in the fertilizer and seed building of the West Fertilizer Plant about 20 minutes after the first report of a fire at the facility.

The West Fertilizer Co., which operated the facility, had warned state and local officials but not federal agencies that it had 270 tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate on site, according to regulatory records.

The company had been cited by federal regulators twice since 2006.

In 2012, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $5,250 for storing anhydrous ammonia in tanks that lacked the proper warning labels. The agency originally recommended a $10,000 penalty, but it was reduced after the company took corrective action.

In 2006, the EPA fined it $2,300 and told the owners to correct problems that included a failure to file a risk management program plan on time. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also investigated a complaint about the lingering smell of ammonia around the plant the same year.

By Ralph Ellis

CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.