Normative Narratives

Transparency Thursday: As the Debris Settles, Answers from the West Fertilizer Co. Plant Explosion

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In a week of news dominated by the act of domestic terror at the Boston Marathon, another tragic event struck our nation that received comparatively little press. I am referring to the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Tex, which killed 10 firefighters and at least 4 civilians:

“In the moments after a fire broke out at a fertilizer plant here last week, some of the volunteer firefighters and other first responders who rushed to the scene appeared to have known that there were tons of dangerously combustible ammonium nitrate inside, but others did not”

The uncertainty over who was aware of the chemical at the plant and who was not, both at the site and in Washington, illustrates the patchwork regulatory world the plant operated in and the ways in which it slipped through bureaucratic cracks at the federal, state and local levels.

One week after the blast, investigators were still not sure how much ammonium nitrate was stored there, whether it had been stored properly and which agencies had been informed about it — even though a host of federal, state and local officials were responsible for regulating and monitoring the plant’s operations and products.”

“Many safety decisions — including moves in recent years to build homes, schools and a nursing home not far from the decades-old plant — were left to local officials who often did not have the expertise to assess the dangers. And the gaps in the oversight of the plant and a paper trail of records have left the essential question of how and why the ammonium nitrate ignited a mystery.

The explosion was so powerful it leveled homes and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Judging by the size of the crater and the extent of the damage — pieces of twisted metal landed in distant pastures, and ceiling tiles and lights shook loose in buildings two miles away — the explosion was more powerful than the Oklahoma City bombing, experts said.”

When a tragedy like this occurs, it is natural to ask ourselves “could this event, and the pain and suffering it has caused, have been avoided?It seems pretty clear, from the evidence surrounding the explosion and the policies in place that it could have been.

It is fairly obvious that the explosion was caused by the presence of this chemical, which was not produced at the plant but merely sold there. In an attempt to make extra money selling a potentially dangerous chemical, countless lives were put in danger, ultimately resulting in 14 deaths.

 “The blast crater is in the part of the plant where the ammonium nitrate was stored, the official said, though investigators do not yet know exactly how much of it was there at the time or how the storage bins were configured.”

It is evident that there were oversights at the local, state, and federal level which allowed for this event to unfold.

“Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the plant is required to send an annual report detailing the hazardous chemicals it keeps on site to three state and local groups — the Texas Department of State Health Services, the local fire department and a group of county emergency officials known as the Local Emergency Planning Committee.“

“After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed a law requiring plants that use or store explosives or high-risk chemicals to file reports with the Homeland Security Department so it can increase security at such facilities. That requirement includes any plant with more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, but a Homeland Security official said that West Fertilizer had not filed such a report, even though it had 1,350 times that amount. The plant is not on the department’s list of 4,000 facilities with high-risk chemicals, and one official said it might have been placed on that list if it had filed a report.“

West Fertilizer Company, which operates the plant, has a decades-long rap-sheet of compliance problems with Texas environmental rules, and has not been inspected by federal regulators in since 1985:

The plant was last inspected by OSHA in 1985. At the time, according to records obtained by the Associated Press, OSHA cited the plant for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia and fined it $30; OSHA could have imposed a fine of as much as $1,000. OSHA also cited the plant for violations of respiratory protection standards, but did not issue fines.”

A fine of $30 dollars, 28 years ago, hardly seems like much of a deterrent. A recent report suggests that damage caused by the plant will exceed $100 million dollars.

The question now is going forward, who should be held responsible for this preventable tragedy so that future tragedies can be prevented?

There is certainly a strong case to be made against regulators at the local, state, and federal level, as well as the owners of the West Fertilizer Company Plant.

A number of lawsuits have already been filed against Adair Grain Inc., which owns the plant, of negligence which led to the explosion. It can only be assumed that as more facts present themselves, more suits will be filed.

Should any government regulators, whose negligence allowed this tragedy to take place, be held accountable? What about local elected officials who allowed schools and hospitals to be built so close to a potentially dangerous site? In what ways will those who are held accountable be charged? Will it be merely financial compensation, or will someone be held accountable for the human suffering caused by the explosion?

Sound off people; a tragedy like this could happen anywhere without competent regulatory oversight.

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3 thoughts on “Transparency Thursday: As the Debris Settles, Answers from the West Fertilizer Co. Plant Explosion

  1. Exploding ammonium nitrate would not make the sooty yellow-orange fireball shown in the “official video” above. Neither would anhydrous ammonia. Until we find out what carbon-containing material caused the blast, any observations about ammonium nitrate or anhydrous ammonia at the West Fertilizer retail sales facility are nothing more than barking up the wrong tree.

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    • Excellent, we need people who understand these things to comment (I am certainly no chemist!).

      I guess the point is that something clearly exploded, and the plant was housing a number of chemicals which it did not report.

      The fire was contained to the area of the plant, then something exploded causing massive destruction. There was an element of negligence in an attempt to make some extra $, and that led to many unnecessary deaths. Exactly which chemical it actually was is in some ways secondary to these other issues of negligence both on the part of plant operators and government officials.

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