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Monday, September 26, 2016

texas plant explosion

AP Photo/Andy Bartee

by Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica.

April 25: This post has been corrected.

A week after a blast at a Texas fertilizer plant killed at least 15 people and hurt more than 200, authorities still don’t know exactly why the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant exploded.

Here’s what we do know: The fertilizer plant hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. Its owners do not seem to have told the Department of Homeland Security that they were storing large quantities of potentially explosive fertilizer, as regulations require. And the most recent partial safety inspection of the facility in 2011 led to $5,250 in fines.

We’ve laid out which agencies were in charge of regulating the plant and who’s investigating the explosion now.

What happened, exactly?

Around 7:30 p.m. on April 17, a fire broke out at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, a small town of about 2,800 people 75 miles south of Dallas. Twenty minutes later, it blew up. The explosion shook houses 50 miles away and was so powerful that the United States Geological Survey registered it as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. It flattened homes within a five-block radius and destroyed a nursing home, an apartment complex, and a nearby middle school.  According to the New York Times, the blast left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and the fire “burned with such intensity that railroad tracks were fused.”

The blast killed at least 15 people, most of them firefighters and other first responders.

Have fertilizer plants ever exploded before?

Yes. A plant in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, that manufactured ammonium nitrate fertilizer — the same explosive chemical stored in West — exploded on Dec. 13, 1994, killing four people and injuring 18.

But fertilizer plants are safer now, said Stephen Slater, the Iowa administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “All kinds of technologies have had huge improvements,” he told the Des Moines Register. “And we haven’t had any bad experiences at the plants in the 20 years since [the accident]. I’m knocking on wood.” (Slater didn’t respond to our requests for comment.)

Who regulates these fertilizer plants?

At least seven different state and federal agencies can regulate Texas fertilizer plants like the one in West: OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service.

Some of the agencies don’t appear to have shared information before the blast.

Fertilizer plants that hold more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, for instance, are required to notify the Department of Homeland Security. (Ammonium nitrate can be used to make bombs. It’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.) The West plant held 270 tons — yes, tons — of the chemical last year, according to a report it filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the plant didn’t tell Homeland Security.

Carrie Williams, a Department of State Health Services spokeswoman, told ProPublica that the agency isn’t required to pass that information — which is also sent to local authorities — on to Homeland Security.

While the exact cause of the explosion is unknown, a federal official told the New York Times that investigators believed it was caused by the ammonium nitrate. The blast crater is in the area of the plant where the chemical was stored.

The plant also filed a “worst-case release scenario” report with the EPA and local officials stating there was no risk of a fire or an explosion. The scenario described an anhydrous ammonia leak that wouldn’t hurt anyone.

  • Sand_Cat

    I think we can make a pretty good guess “exactly why” the plant exploded. It’s called C-R-I-M-I-N-A-L–N-E-G-L-I-G-E-N-C-E, and the underlying reasons are G-R-E-E-D and I-N-D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-C-E enabled by R-E-P-U-B-L-I-C-A-N-S and “blue dog” D-E-M-O-C-R-A-T-S.
    Any questions?

    • InsideEye

      All of those agencies that are suppposed to check on these matters evidently do not communicate to each other anyway , so why should they notify Home Insecurity about a few extra milligrams of Nitro. Its not the amount…it is what you do with it……quote “Monica Lewinsky”…it was an accident.

  • David Turrentine

    Unless somebody can tie it to al Qaeda or Boston, most people will forget it.

  • sigrid28

    Not to be a Cassandra, but I worry that this explosion may be emblematic of a future like that of Russia after the Soviet Union (not to imply that that was any picnic in the park). What if Texas is just the petrie dish for totalitarian rule Russian style, in our case, by the 2% who provide for their own enrichment at the expense of all others, who dominate “elected” legislatures, and who institutionalize neglect of society as a whole in favor of catering to the needs of the wealthy few and leave the rest to live in a veritable wasteland. A librarian visiting colleagues in Russia in 1991

  • charleo1

    I suspect they could very well find, this,, “accident,” in West TX. is like another, “accident,” with the deep water, oil drilling operation, Horizon, in the Gulf of
    Mexico. Or the lab that put out contaminated medicine, causing a score of
    meningitis deaths. Or the peanut butter plant, that was finally inspected, and
    found to be filthy. And, to have not had a proper inspection in several years.
    I believe in all these cases, and more we didn’t hear about, because in many
    cases, there is no statute requiring public notification. All this is the reaping of
    seeds sown, aganist government oversight, by the same people that brought
    us the idea, that government, and regulations, add no value to the process.
    And as such, can, and should be, pushed to the side, as part of an agenda
    to cut, and pair down the role of government, in all facets of life. The premise
    being, in a free market, producers, and manufactures, will police themselves.
    For who would risk the reputation of their business, by allowing a sub standard
    product on the market? As it turns out, a lot of them are not only willing to put
    dangerous products on the market, they do. In much greater instances than
    the, let’s drown the government in the bathtub, faction, claimed. Actually, they
    are still blaming the government for their own careless actions. I think it’s time
    we put these Ideologues in the dust bin. And get back to responsible government
    oversight.

  • Jack Dawson

    With spring planting and all the fertilizer needs of farmers in the area, 270 tons of ammonium nitrate is not that much – less than 3 railroad cars of bulk product. During the busiest time of year that 270 tons will not last a month at a lot of plants. At a large plant it might not last two weeks. I am a bit surprised that the plant had ammonium nitrate instead of urea, but presume that is not terribly unusual.

    Part of the problem was the way the fire was fought, which may have actually sped up the reactions in the fertilizer and caused the explosion. Surely the firefighters should have been told what they were fighting and given a better way to deal with the product.