Lebanese officials blame explosion in Beirut on ammonium nitrate. Can something similar happen in US?

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A massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday killed more than 100 people, injured thousands, and leveled an entire neighborhood. Lebanese officials blamed the blast on more than 2700 tons of ammonium nitrate that were stored without safety measures. 

That same chemical fertilizer was responsible for other explosions in the United States, and used as a bomb-making component in international and domestic terrorism. 

Sixty tons of ammonium nitrate was linked to an explosion in 2013 in West, Texas. Fifteen people died, 250 people were injured. That’s according to Joe Wertz, senior environmental reporter for the Center for Public Integrity. “It just looked like a tornado had ripped through the town,” he adds. 

Wertz says before that, in 1947, the U.S. had its worst industrial accident near Galveston in Texas, which killed 581 people and involved ammonium nitrate.

It’s uncertain how many facilities exist in the U.S. that store ammonium nitrate. Wertz says the last survey done by the U.S. government is several years old, and the estimate was 1300 facilities in 47 states. 

He says there’s a patchwork of federal and state rules to prevent these kinds of incidents. 

“One is through the EPA. They require facilities that store this stuff to tell the government that they're storing it, tell them how much is being stored, and how it's being stored. That's supposed to be information that's available to first responders and firefighters in the area. 

But after the West, Texas accident, Obama sent out this executive order, and he really pushed his administration and the agencies to do more to safeguard against these types of accidents. When President Trump's administration took over, they set about dismantling large parts of that rule. They took out some of the big elements, explaining that it was a burden to industry. And the agricultural business industry … lobbied very hard to get those elements out of the rule.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski