Nel's New Day

April 24, 2013

No Outrage for Texas Explosion

If you were anywhere near a television set or newspaper last week, you would know that two young men set off a bomb at the Boston marathon and that they had been captured, one dead and the other in the hospital. The news about the three deaths caused by the bombs and the injured people dominated the media.

But fewer people knew about the 15 deaths and 200+ injuries in a little-known Texas town after an explosion at a fertilizer plant a week ago today. Yet the media largely ignored the explosion after the first day.

West Fertilizer’s function is to store, distribute, and blend fertilizer for farmers. The state has as many as 1,150 of these plants, all so small that they have few regulations.  Owned by Donald Adair, the plant had no sprinklers and no water deluge systems. There were no fire walls. With no fire suppression systems, there was no way to stop the fire after it started. It is also the reason that so many first responders died in the explosion.

The plant did have 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, the chemical used to build the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995 that killed 168 people, and 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, considered flammable and potentially toxic. EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) requires companies to submit plans describing their handling and storage of certain hazardous chemicals. Ammonium nitrate is not among the chemicals that must be reported. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave the plant a permit for handling anhydrous ammonia without checking to see if the company added the necessary safety equipment.

Last summer the plant was fined $5,250 for improperly labeling storage tanks and transferring chemicals without a security plan. Adair said that the plant had corrected the problems. The year before that, it was cited for not having an up-to-date risk management plan. The submitted plan said that the plant didn’t have any flammable substances. A citation in 2006 was issued after the complaint of a strong ammonia smell, the same claim as the night of the explosion.

The year 1985 was the last visit from the Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) inspection. It found one serious and two additional violations; the company was fined $30. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is so understaffed that a plant like West Fertilizer might expect a state inspection every 129 years. OSHA has 2,000 inspectors to cover the 7,000,000 workplaces in the United States. Yet the House 2011 budget, supported by Texas GOP representatives, would have reduced OSHA by $99 million.

Even seven years ago, Texas’ environmental agency knew that the plant was handling 2,400 tons a year of the explosive ammonium nitrate, deadly when heated to extreme temperatures or exposed to shock. Nobody seems responsible, however, for ensuring the safety of the people at and around the plant. The state environmental agency just makes sure that the blast doesn’t spread pollution; the federal pipeline agency governs only transportation, not storage; and the state chemist’s office, which came ten days before the explosion, has no legal authority in the arena of fire or explosive safety.

There are no uniform federal rules for ammonium storage. Fire safety experts have best practices for protection, but the company did not follow any simple safeguards such as storing the ammonium nitrate far away from other buildings and fire sources as well as installing a water system to cool the fertilizer before it could explode. Texas has learned nothing from the 1947 ammonium nitrate explosion at Texas City that killed at least 581 people.

West beforeEven without any inspections, common sense zoning might have stopped some of the carnage. Two of the three schools in the town were across the street from the plant. On the other side of the plant was a child’s playground and, behind that, a retirement home. The explosion could have very easily happened during school hours. Two months ago, a controlled brush burn near the plant evacuated the middle school. Recently West Fertilizer burned wooden pallets near the stockpiled explosive material on the site. [Photo: West (TX) before explosion)

West-texas-map

More photos are available here.

West afterThe explosion caused severe fire damage to the middle school and leveled an apartment building next to the plant as was a nursing home nearby. And of course, there were the 50 to 60 homes destroyed in this town of less than 3,000. The cost is estimated at over $100 million. [Photo: West (TX) after explosion]

All the federal representatives for the West (TX) area—Rep. Bill Flores, John Cornyn, and Ted Cruz—want federal aid for their suffering constituents. All three of them, Republicans, may have forgotten that they all voted against sending any aid to those suffering from Superstorm Sandy unless it was matched by federal cuts.

There is one regulation that Donald Adair and West Fertilizer ignored. Any fertilizer plants and depots holding 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate are required to inform the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, this one little plant in western Texas stored 270 tons of it last year, 1,350 times more than 400 pounds that should have been reported to DHS.

The Texas agency is not required to share this information with the DHS, and the company ignored the reporting requirement. Ammonium nitrate is a substance highly useful in making bombs, yet no one in Congress has evidenced any concern about what happened in West, Texas, and what this means for the safety of the country. At this time, companies are responsible to self-report the quantities of volatile chemicals that they have. Without doing this, facilities cannot be monitored in order to prevent sabotage and keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.

Eighteen years ago, Timothy McVeigh and others put 2 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with racing fuel into a truck and blew it up in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City. Eighteen years later, they could still buy the same substance.

The media and Congress continue to rage at the 19-year-old young man and his connection to Muslims while exhibiting no outrage about the death and destruction in Texas and no concern about easily available chemicals for making bombs. At the same time, conservative lawmakers threaten the country’s security by shrinking budgets, opposing regulations, and fighting agency connections.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S. His “weapon” was a couple of pressure cookers, some gunpowder, and a batch of fireworks. Yet the media ignores a man who concealed the fact from the federal government that his company stores a massive amount of chemicals that killed at least 15 people, injured at least another 200, and caused more than $100 million of property damage.

1 Comment »

  1. Excellent points. This was a disgusting event that could have been prevented.

    Like

    Comment by Lee Lynch — April 24, 2013 @ 11:21 PM | Reply


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