This Texas fertiliser fire: a hydrogen explosion perhaps?

I\’ve been trying to puzzle through what might have happened in that dreadful fire and explosion in Texas.

Of course, we all know that ammonium nitrate is highly explosive: people make bombs out of it. But it doesn\’t appear that the plant actually made or even stored that. It was a wholesaler for anhydrous ammonia. Which in itself isn\’t particularly an explosive danger.

So what happened?

Here\’s my best guess. There was a fire reported at the plant. Apparently it burned for an hour or so before the explosion. And here\’s the one thing you don\’t want to happen to anhydrous ammonia. That it be in a tank or enclosed space: and then it gets hot.

For it\’s NH3. And when it gets hot it becomes N2 plus H2……2NH3 becomes N2 + 3H2. And H2 is, as we know, highly explosive: that\’s what blew up the outer containment of the reactor at Fukushima.

On the very limited information we have at the moment that\’s my best guess. The fire warmed the storage tanks, disassociated (is that the right word?) the NH3 and thus there was a hydrogen explosion.

57 thoughts on “This Texas fertiliser fire: a hydrogen explosion perhaps?”

  1. Not a lot of people know this, but the American system of industrial safety, overseen by OSHA, is basically a series of checklists which are carried around by thousands upon thousands of Federal OSHA employees who put a tick or cross against each requirement and go on their merry way. Provided a facility gets all the boxes ticked, nobody really needs to engage their brain.

    The system is shit, but nobody wants to change it because being an OSHA employee is a cushy role. The British system, managed by the UK HSE, has few hard and fast rules but requires the owners of facilities to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the HSE that the risks have been reduced to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). Therefore, the owners have to come up with methods of demonstrating this (in the oil industry it is the Safety Case) and in order to do so they they have to have a serious and careful look at their operations and the risks involved. This approach was brought in after Piper Alpha, and it has resulted in the UK HSE industrial safety standards being the highest in the world (at least, for oil and gas) and used as a benchmark globally.

    When you consider that the US has instead a “well, all the boxes were checked so we assumed it was safe” approach, it is little wonder there are so many industrial accidents over there.

  2. Years ago when I worked in petrochemicals my boss, recently returned from Texas, told me about an incident there. Some propane rail cars had been de-railed and the fire brigade turned up to spray them with their hoses. There was a great explosion and fire ignited, apparently, by the cigarette one of the firemen was smoking. My boss, searching for a word to describe the Texan attitude to safety, apologised for settling on the hackneyed “cowboys”.

    There was an explosion and fire at a BP-bought refinery there a few years ago that was also essence of cowboy. Why BP would be so rash as to stick its nameplate on such a place without bringing its standards up to snuff is one for the absurd Lord Browne to answer.

  3. Considering that the ammonia was stored in a liquid form then you can get a BLEVE (boiling liquid – expanding vapour explosion) caused by a fire burning near a sealed vessel.

    The thing is, the resulting explosion seemed far too quick to be a blevey for me. Having done some calculations in uni, I recall a lifetime of about 30 seconds for particular large bleveys (along with other fun facts like calculating at what distance death is almost certain).

    Hence I think the force of the explosion was due to the rapid expansion of decomposed ammonia caused by going from a liquid to a gaseous form and that only a small part of the force was due to burning hydrogen.

  4. Ian: I wouldn’t rely on the colour fidelity of the camera to make that distinction, especially when it’s completely washed out by the flash.

  5. ….There was an explosion and fire at a BP-bought refinery there a few years ago that was also essence of cowboy……

    From someone in the industry, the negligence at that refinery was shocking. It was however as far as I can tell, not the fault of the Texans, but rather that of a chap of diminutive stature and his lieutenants located in a small island nation of the coast of the European continent.

    None of the safety systems worked, and despite many requests for the budget to correct the faults, a cross finger and hope policy was implemented. Venezuela is well known for having mastered this particular management philosophy, and their refineries catch alight with startling regularity. The best bit is you can blame it on sabotage.

  6. From someone in the industry, the negligence at that refinery was shocking. It was however as far as I can tell, not the fault of the Texans, but rather that of a chap of diminutive stature and his lieutenants located in a small island nation of the coast of the European continent.

    I’ve also heard the practices at the Texas City refinery were appalling. Whereas the BP management practices were almost certainly a major factor, the fact that such incidents haven’t occurred on BP’s European facilities suggests that BP bought a shoddy asset from Aramco and possibly inherited crap managers.

    As a 10-year veteran of the oilfields at the tender age of 36, I have recently reached the conclusion that a company name, company culture, company brand, company procedures, and company management system count for absolutely fuck all if you do not have the right individuals in the organisation, both as managers and workers. I have seen “good” companies preside over disasters having employed the wrong people; and minnows perform excellent work by employing the right people.

    And major oil companies are notorious for employing the wrong people, especially those who:

    1. Are incompetent.
    2. Don’t have the balls to make a decision or stand up for themselves in front of their hierarchy.

    Note I didn’t include experience there: experience is important, but without competence all the “experience” in the world won’t save you. I would rather employ a young, inexperienced, competent person than an old, “experienced” incompetent. Your lead engineers should be competent and experienced, your managers merely competent.

  7. “BP bought a shoddy asset from Aramco”

    It was Amoco rather than Aramco and there were shoddy safety procedures as well as lack of maintenance. Having people living and working in port-a-cabin’s in the middle of the site didn’t help.

  8. Hi Tim, as a battle-scared veteran of the mining industry, now fortunately retired, I can only agree with you. Individuals make companies, ships, teams, whatever. The problem with a big company is usually the personnel department, staffed with idiots and liberals arts touchy degreed shits who have zero understanding of the technicalities of the job.

    We have a saying in the mining industry that you can determine the true value of an orebody by the number of generations of idiot managers it takes to ruin a mine.

  9. It was Amoco rather than Aramco and there were shoddy safety procedures as well as lack of maintenance.

    *Meaty slap to forehead*

    Of course it was…typo on my part.

  10. On an aside, given the plant is just over the town border from Waco and tomorrow is the 20th Anniversary of the final siege, I would still keep an open mind about this being a US domestic terrorism incident.

    Just saying…

  11. Doubt it. It’s hard to imagine right wing populists blowing up an industrial facility and killing ordinary people. They’d be more likely to assassinate Janet Reno or try for an ATF or other government facility.

  12. @ John Galt,

    might also explain why nobody has yet ‘claimed’ Boston. A series of attacks being planned perhaps? After all, the Oklahoma bombing was timed for the 2nd anniversary of Waco….

  13. “It’s hard to imagine right wing populists blowing up an industrial facility and killing ordinary people.”

    No, I agree a federal facility or top level political target would be more appropriate, but the timing and location are suspicious even if not definitive.

  14. “might also explain why nobody has yet ‘claimed’ Boston”

    Interesting point, perhaps a series of attacks up-to and around the 20th anniversary of Wako.

    False flag perhaps?

  15. This was a fire that eventually caused an explosion, remember, not a bomb type explosion.

    Boston looks like franchise Islamists to me, but that’s pure speculation, again on a subject about which I actually know bugger all.

  16. I’ve found something to say in favour of our own cowardly emergency services!

    They would have evacuated the area, approached with extreme caution…
    And then when the explosion happened very few people would have been in danger.

    But no, Waco’s finest… It’s a shame but I recall those pictures of NY’s finest cluttering up the stairwells of the twin towers.

  17. @ our learned host.
    Was it wise positing a **HYDROGEN EXPLOSION**?
    This here’s the interweb.
    How long before “cover-ups of radiation contamination” theories are going the rounds?

  18. bis: I hear it was a secret government manufacturing facility providing weapons for FEMA camp guards and mind altering substances for the chemtrail sprayers. Someone on the Internet found out so They crashed a black helicopter into it to cover the whole thing up.

  19. @Matthew L:

    No tinfoil required, I merely pointed out correlation. Correlation does not imply causation. If I was a wearer of tinfoil hats then I would have stated these matters as facts.

    All I have done is highlight the coincidence, serendipity does happen after all, even in the most unlikely and nominally random of circumstances…

  20. When one of the explosions is in a burning fertiliser factory? When they’re separated by a week and an entire country? When one is I’m a crowded public event and the other in an isolated industrial area?

  21. Normally, when people remember that random events occur at random intervals. Which therefore may be close together.

  22. “When one of the explosions is in a burning fertiliser factory? When they’re separated by a week and an entire country? When one is I’m a crowded public event and the other in an isolated industrial area?”

    Fair enough. If a week goes by without another fatal incident in-or-around Wako or Oklahoma then I will acknowledge that I am a paranoid, delusional fantasist and put a layer of Aluminium foil inside my baseball cap.

  23. Going back to the chemistry, the anhydrous ammonia may have been the cause of the explosion, but it’s certainly not the only thing there which might have been. Nitric acid is an extremely powerful oxidiser used in rocket fuels. Have enough of it around and you can end up with all kinds of highly explosive nitro compounds. The basic reaction the factory carried out – nitration of ammonia – is basically an explosion already, although obviously they contained it normally.

    Of course, one would hope that the firemen in question didn’t use water anywhere near anhydrous ammonia…

  24. Surreptitious Evil

    Dave,

    Do you mean normal nitric acid or (I)RFNA (Inhibited) Red Fuming Nitric Acid. The latter is the rocket fuel oxidiser.

  25. SE>

    ‘Fuming’ nitric acid is just extremely strong. For these purposes, the differences between the FNAs is irrelevant.

    Have you also been reading Ignition lately? 🙂

  26. @ Dave
    What are you talking about?
    Nitric acid is not part of the normal industrial production of ammonia

  27. Matt L:

    No, it was simply warehousing Anhydrous Ammonia (which is used as a fertilizer). No Ammonium Nitrate was involved.

  28. From what I’ve read, the anhydrous ammonia is applied directly to the topsoil. There’s a tank towed by a tractor, and a hose assembly directs the ammonia into the topsoil, where it combines with the moisture in the soil.

  29. Peter>

    Where did you get that from? The sources I’ve seen said they were manufacturing ammonium nitrate from the ammonia.

  30. Tim N, not arguing but curious. If you are an evil satanic oil company, not caring about anything but profits, surely you say to your minions: whatever you do, do not have a spill/explosion in the US. Do it in Nigeria, Angola, Columbia, anywhere but the US, and certainly not the states where the local courts are notorious for fucking over defendants, and particularly foreign defendants.

    Why does BP keep blowing things up in Texas or Nawlins?

  31. Coming from the BP of both pre-and-post Amoco, the simple answer is that the merger with Amoco was necessary for US expansion in the eyes of Lord Browne.

    Texas City & Deepwater Horizon were a poisoned chalice that came with the merger (albeit the 2001-2013 contract for Deepwater Horizon could have been cancelled before commencement).

    The considered opinion at the time of the BP / Amoco merger was that BP couldn’t exploit US growth by just being a US retailer. They needed to be a full market counterpart.

  32. Surreptitious Evil

    ‘Fuming’ nitric acid is just extremely strong. For these purposes, the differences between the FNAs is irrelevant.

    For the purposes of rocket oxidiser, both the strength and the differences between Red, White and Inhibited Red are important. Although the original point was about merely going bang, it was you that brought rocket fuel up.

    Have you also been reading Ignition lately?

    No. I worked with the stuff for 8 years.

  33. Surreptitious Evil

    I would expect so. In the old days I used to have a lovely book which listed loads of things that were ‘common knowledge’ and told you exactly how classified they were. Unfortunately, that book was, itself, very classified. And I had to shred it, but that’s a different issue.

    I do occasionally have to restrain myself from starting posts “Thankfully, I officially know nothing about this therefore I can comment …”

  34. Why does BP keep blowing things up in Texas or Nawlins?

    Luke, I think the answer is a combination of what John Galt says @47 and what I wrote @4.

    Most countries don’t have a national set of safety standards, so when an oil company goes overseas they operate to the UK standard, which is generally the globally accepted one. The Americans operate to their own, IMO inferior, standards, and I think this contributes to their accident rate.

  35. John Galt @34:

    Fair enough. If a week goes by without another fatal incident in-or-around Wako or Oklahoma then I will acknowledge that I am a paranoid, delusional fantasist and put a layer of Aluminium foil inside my baseball cap.

    It’s been a week…

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