Mannan gives congressional testimony on explosions in Texas and Louisiana

Photo of Dr. M. Sam Mannan in labDr. M. Sam Mannan, a world-renowned expert on safety in the chemical processing industry, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works June 27 in Washington, D.C.

Mannan is Regents Professor and holder of the Mike O’Connor Chair I in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University and director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center in the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES). 

Mannan gave testimony on the oversight of federal risk management and emergency planning programs to prevent and address chemical threats, including the events that led to explosions in West, Texas, in April and Geismar, La., in June.

During his testimony, Mannan said that chemicals play a key role in today's high-tech world and that the chemical industry is linked to every technologically advanced industry. But safe use of chemicals creates a healthier economy and a higher standard of living, while unsafe use threatens lives, businesses and the environment.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has general and specificregulations that would apply to the use and possession of ammonium nitrate. The West facility was required to comply with specific OSHA regulations. Mannan said that while it is not clear what the compliance status of the facility was at the time of the incident, compliance with these programs could have prevented or mitigated the incident. Storage of ammonium nitrate at an adequate distance from the seed area might have helped in preventing the explosion, as well as firewalls to prevent the ammonium nitrate from heating and reaching the onset temperature of decomposition. And the warehouse construction material was wood, which is a combustible material.

"Overall, from what is known, the storage of ammonium nitrate at West Fertilizer Company did not provide adequate measures to prevent overheating and propagation of fire, which eventually led to the explosion," Mannan said, and added that proper training on the hazards of ammonium nitrate and knowledge about a potential violent decomposition might have allowed firefighters to take a different approach when responding to and fighting the initial fire.

Mannan also said that OSHA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have regulations that applied to the West Fertilizer Co. West Fertilizer was covered by Department of Transportation regulations regarding safe transport of ammonium nitrate. Additionally, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulatory requirements pertaining
to ammonium nitrate do not apply to ammonium nitrate used as fertilizer, but the agency has embarked on several collaborative programs with industry organizations to improve security and safety at all ammonium nitrate facilities.

"We must as a nation and individuals explore and investigate these incidents and do our best to prevent the recurrence of such incidents," Mannan said.

A professional engineer and certified safety professional, Mannan is a fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration and National Fire Protection Association. In addition to his many professional honors and achievements, Mannan has served as a consultant to numerous entities in both the academic and private sectors, including the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center mission is to lead the integration of process safety — through education, research, and service — into the education and practice of all individuals and organizations involved in chemical operations. The center aims to serve as the premier process safety resource for all stakeholders so that safety becomes second nature for managers, engineers and workers as progress continues toward zero injuries and lost lives. The center seeks to develop safer processes, equipment, procedures and management strategies that will minimize losses in the process industry.