Huge explosion, many casualties, and a town nearly destroyed. Not terrorism, just possibly lax regulations

Late last night/early this morning, a fire erupted at a fertilizer plant in West, a small town just north of Waco, Texas. The fire is suspected in a subsequent explosion, which was so large it was measured as 2.1 earthquake by the USGS, that has killed 5-15 people, wounding around 160 and destroying many homes, apartments, and businesses. Danger is still present as toxic fumes are drifting across the area, threatening the lives and health of residents. After all of this I was stunned to read this passage from the New York Times this morning:

Because it was built in 1962, the facility was grandfathered into state regulations, Mr. Covar said. The company was supposed to get reauthorized in 2004, but failed to do so. Mr. Covar would not speculate on the reason they failed to do it.

He also said that currently the agency did not detect health concerns in the air near the facility.

Governor Perry, in response to questions, declined to speculate about whether the regulatory financing and oversight was adequate.

Records from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration record that the agency’s last inspection of the facility occurred 28 years ago, in 1985. The agency found five violations that were considered “serious,” including some improper handling of anhydrous ammonia. The company was fined $30.

So this company was producing highly dangerous fertilizer without a permit? And it was doing so in close proximity to homes and schools?

Oh, wait, the company said something like this could never happen. The Dallas Morning News dug into the company’s EPA filing and here is what they reported:

West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

But the report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated “no” under fire or explosive risks. The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.

The second worst possibility projected was a leak from a broken hose used to transfer the product, again causing no injuries.

The plan says the facility did not have any other dangerous chemicals on hand. It says that the plan was on file with the local fire department and that the company had implemented proper safety rules.

It appears the volunteer fire fighters who were killed at the scene died because they didn’t know what chemicals were being used and stored at the plant. Again, according to the Dallas Morning News:

Advisories on safe handling of anhydrous ammonia generally state that the chemical is not considered an explosion risk when in the air as a gas. They add, however, that it can explode in certain concentrations inside a container.

“Emergency responders should not mix water used for firefighting directly with anhydrous ammonia as this will result in warming of the product, causing the liquid to turn into a vapor cloud,” says the website of Calamco, a growers’ cooperative in California.Explosive hazards with fertilizer are more commonly linked to ammonium nitrate, which is widely used both in agriculture and as an explosive in construction and mining. A mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was used to make the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 18 years ago Friday.

President Ronald Reagan was fond of a phrase first coined by Vladimir Lenin, “trust but verify”, and used it to describe how he dealt with Soviet leadership during the 1980’s. It seems to me no one from the EPA or the state of Texas verified what was on this site. An inspection might have verified they were full of it. Most companies do the right thing, but regulation and thorough inspections are necessary because of the dangerous few who don’t care about safety and human life, just profits.

I’m holding out hope that reporters continue to dig into this story and grill local, state, and federal officials about what happened here.

*Update: this extraordinary video of the explosion was just put up:

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