WEST, Texas (KXAN/AP) - Federal regulators fined the company that operates the Texas fertilizer plant that exploded overnight $10,000 last summer for safety violations, The Associated Press reported Thursday. But the government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions.
The wire service also reported that the facility did not have the state-required sprinkler systems.
Records reviewed by the AP show that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration determined that the West Fertilizer Co. planned to transport anhydrous ammonia without making or following a security plan. An inspector also found that the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled.
It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.
Meanwhile, The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials said the 51-year-old West fertilizer plant has been cited before for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit.
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- How to find a shelter or get help
- Timeline: Plant cited in 2006
The TCEQ investigated West Fertilizer on June 20, 2006, after receiving a complaint June 9 of a strong ammonia smell.
Agency records show that the person who lodged the complaint said the ammonia smell was "very bad last night" and lingered until after he or she went to bed.
TCEQ officials cited the plant for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The plant received an air quality permit as a fertilizer mixing and storage facility from the TCEQ the following December.
Also in 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the plant in 2006 for failing to have a risk management plan.
Meanwhile, a search of OSHA inspection records show there have been no inspections done at the facility for at least the last five years.
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Amid the rubble and chaos -- and high winds spurred by an approaching cold front -- the chemical officials are worrying about as search-and-rescue missions are underway is the anhydrous ammonia.
West Fertilizer reportedly stored 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia that, along with nitric acid, is used to produce ammonium nitrate. That is a fertilizer, pesticide and rodent killer.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was deploying a large investigation team to West. An ATF national response team that investigates all large fires and explosions was also expected, bringing fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, chemists, canines and forensic specialists.
American Red Cross crews from across Texas also headed to the scene to help evacuated residents.
In 2001, an explosion at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. The blast happened in a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can be used for both fertilizer and explosives. The explosion came 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., and raised fears at the time it was linked. A 2006 report blamed the blast on negligence.
Wednesday night's explosion leveled the plant, dozens of homes for blocks, and severely damaged other area buildings -- including the West Rest Haven Nursing Home where 133 people were evacuated.
Throughout the overnight hours, emergency crews have been trying to evacuate area homes and conduct search-and-rescue missions.
The scene Thursday morning
Officials in West, Texas, are labeling the deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant that left more than 160 hurt a crime scene.
"What that means to us is: Until we know that it is an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene," said Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton during a press conference around 4:40 a.m. "I have heard no indications that this is anything other than an accidental fire."
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials are investigating the explosion at the plant, while the McLennan County Sheriff's Office is investigating the deaths from the Wednesday night explosion.
Swanton said they were still unsure of the number of deaths so far but offered a rough estimate of anywhere between five- and 15 people.
There have already been more than 160 people treated at hospitals, 19 of whom are in serious condition. Of those 101 people treated at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, five are in critical condition.
"Some needed fertilizer decontamination when they first came in," said Swanton.
In addition, there are three- to five firefighters missing and an additional law enforcement official who was with those firefighters trying to put out the blaze at the plant when the explosion happened.
The blast sent flames shooting high into the night sky -- leaving the factory a smoldering ruin, causing major damage to nearby buildings and injuring several others.
The explosion happened just before 8 p.m. Wednesday and registered a magnitude 2.1 earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Among the damaged buildings was the West Rest Haven Nursing Home, from which first-responders evacuated 133 patients -- some in wheelchairs.
This report contains information from The Associated Press.
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