Explosion in a Wild West

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Any other week, the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas—which killed 14 people, injured 200, and flattened 50 houses all in a town of under 3,000 people—would have dominated the news for days, with the explosion playing over and over again. Instead, most of us wound up watching the whole thing through YouTube videos. Just days earlier, bombs planted at the Boston Marathon had left the country on alert for terrorist attacks. The ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators ensured that a deadly explosion in the middle of Texas wouldn’t start the 10 o’clock news or lead Sunday talk-show coverage.

The trouble is, while none of us can be fully protected from a person with a bomb, we usually assume the risks in areas under government oversight are much lower. While the incident in Boston helps illustrate the limits of public safety, the explosion in West illustrates a series of gaps in regulation—and the risks those gaps create. The investigation around the explosion is ongoing, and there’s a lot left to learn. That the regulatory system failed to do its job, however, is not in doubt.

According to its inventory of dangerous chemicals filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the plant housed an enormous amount of ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, both highly flammable. (Austin radio station KUT has a handy explainer on both chemicals.) In 2012, the plant had as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate; by comparison, the Oklahoma City bombing used 2.4 tons. According to Reuters, the ammonium nitrate alone was 1,350 times the amount that normally prompts oversight from the Department of Homeland Security—but in this case, the DHS never knew about it. This plant was one mile from the center of the town, two-tenths of a mile from the local middle school. There were no sprinklers or fire barriers.

The fertilizer plant falls under the purview of a few different federal and state regulatory agencies, which appears to have exacerbated some of the problems with oversight. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t been to the facility in more than 10 years.  That’s not unusual, according to the Texas branch of Public Citizen, a consumer group. “In the past five years, only two Texas facilities in the same classification—that produce fertilizer using ammonia—have been inspected by OSHA, records show,” the organization said in a press release. “The agency, with a budget of roughly $568 million, lacks the resources to regularly inspect these types of facilities, including the many with high danger levels. Often facilities do not see an inspector for decades at a time.”

Meanwhile, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) last inspected the plant in 2006, after a citizen complained that the smell of ammonia “lingered until after they went to bed.” When inspectors arrived days later, they issued a violation because the plant lacked the necessary air quality permit. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also fined the plant $5,250 for not having a full security plan and mislabeling storage tanks.

But despite the huge amounts of flammable material, the plant reported to the Environmental Protection Agency that it had no fire or explosive risks; the worst thing that could happen was a a release of ammonia gas or a leak in a hose. Neither of those scenarios would kill or injury anyone.

Shortly after the incident, Governor Rick Perry sounded open to increased regulation. “Listen, if there’s a better way to do this, we want to know about it,” Perry told reporters. “If there’s a better way to deal with these events, we want to have that discussion, whatever that might be.”

But Monday, Perry, who often touts the state’s “fair and predictable” (read: lax) regulatory regime, was back to his usual stance. He told reporters that Texans “clearly sent the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.” Bryan Shaw, the chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) argued there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the accident, positing that the explosion could have been caused by a rail car with ammonium nitrate passing near the fertilizer plant. He also said the Office of the Texas State Chemist had visited the plant 12 times this year.

Industry has always ruled in Texas. The Texas Observer’s Forrest Wilder has written a damning piece on TCEQ's history caving in to polluters on issues like air and water quality. Fracking has also become commonplace, even in major metropolitan areas like Forth Worth, leaving concerns about contaminated water and potential explosions.  In 2009, a pipeline near Amarillo blew up, injuring three people. There have been explosions in West Texas and near the panhandle of the state. Most recently, an explosion in an hour south of San Antonio injured three.

There's a long, sad history to all this. Texas was the site of the worst industrial accident in American history, the Texas City explosion, which killed more than 580 people and injured more than 5,000. That incident was caused by ammonium nitrate in fertilizer bags without warning labels. In a sad twist, the day before the West explosion marked the 66th anniversary of the Texas City tragedy.

Given that it’s been nearly 70 years since the accident without much effort to increase regulation in the state, some might agree with Perry’s view that this lack of oversight is what Texans want. In Texas Monthly, Erica Greider argues that after the Texas City explosion, citizens were angry with the government but pleased with private businesses. She cites the work of Bill Minutaglio, a legendary reporter whose book City on Fire, tells the story. When I called Minutaglio, however, he shed more light on the situation. Even 66 years ago, he said, people were shocked to discover the danger in which they’d unwittingly placed themselves. They “had faith that full disclosure was occurring,” he said.

Similarly, the families of West were living in more danger than most of them likely knew. The plant, nestled near residential streets, carried far more risk that people realized. Despite the loss of life and horrible injuries that resulted from it, the Texas City disaster did not produce any shifts toward more safety or more regulation. It was eventually forgotten.

We’ll soon find out if, after thousands of YouTube viewers watched last week's enormous explosion shake the ground, whether this, too, can fade away in our memories without creating a change in policy.

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