What's Being Done To Prevent Another Fertilizer Plant Explosion?

Originally published on April 17, 2014 2:12 pm

A year ago today, a deadly blast tore through the small community of West, Texas, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds. Homes and schools were destroyed.

The explosion at the West fertilizer plant was one of the worst industrial accidents in Texas history. So what’s being done to prevent it from happening again?

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Terrence Henry of KUT reports that the response has been a slow one.


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A year ago today, a deadly blast tore through the small community of West, Texas, about 80 miles south of Dallas. Fifteen people killed, hundreds injured, homes and schools destroyed. The explosion at the West fertilizer plant was one of the worst industrial accidents in Texas history. So what's being done to prevent it from happening again? From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, KUT's Terrence Henry reports that the response has been a slow one.

TERRENCE HENRY, BYLINE: Trucks and bulldozers are still clearing the site of the explosion here in West. There's a lone charred tree that still stands, but otherwise the site is mostly empty. Crosses and memorials that read West Strong line the road, about a mile away in the center of town West Mayor Tommy Muska says the city's response was immediate.

MAYOR TOMMY MUSKA: The city council started working the next day on problems.

HENRY: Since then, over 100 homes have been repaired and dozens of new homes are under construction. We still don't know what caused the fire that sparked the explosion in West, but we do know what exploded: ammonium nitrate. It's commonly used as a fertilizer, and Muska says it's something they should have seen coming.

MUSKA: Well, we're slow learners, I guess. It takes a city - ammonium nitrate and a barge blew up and destroyed most of that town.

HENRY: That was in 1947.

MUSKA: We have Oklahoma City.

HENRY: The bombing of a federal building there in 1995.

MUSKA: So history shows us that ammonium nitrate is a dangerous product.

HENRY: The Texas Legislature has been looking into what can be done to prevent a disaster like West from happening again. So what have they accomplished in the year since?

STATE REPRESENTATIVE JOE PICKETT: Well, technically, nothing has been done.

HENRY: Joe Pickett is a state representative from El Paso. He chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Pickett says West happened during the end of a legislative session, and he didn't want to rush any new rules or regulations. But it's clear there's a simple way to prevent West from happening again: start with preventing a fire that sparks an explosion. West Mayor Tommy Muska says that would have made the difference in his town.

MUSKA: Well, if a sprinkler was there, we would've doused it. We wouldn't be talking today, because that little fire would've been doused by the sprinkler heads.

PICKETT: It's very difficult in Texas currently to do that.

HENRY: Texas is unique in this way. It doesn't have a statewide fire code, and many of the older fertilizer facilities are in counties that can't legally have a fire code.

PICKETT: There are people that live in these unincorporated areas for those reasons. They want less regulation. And there's bills filed every session that don't seem to go anywhere.

HENRY: The legislature had its third hearing on West earlier this week in Austin. It was there that state fire marshal Chris Connealy said regulations can make a difference.

CHRIS CONNEALY: Well, there's two choices: If you want to keep the ammonium nitrate in a combustible facility, you need to put fire sprinklers in there. An alternative that doesn't involve sprinklers that still meets the best practices is to build a noncombustible storage bin for the ammonium nitrate.

HENRY: The fire marshal is proposing a fire code that would only apply to ammonium nitrate facilities. His office found several dozen that are like the one in West. At the hearing, Connealy showed photo after photo of them. Huge piles of ammonium nitrate, like stockpiles of road salt, spilling out of wooden sheds and warehouses with no sprinklers.

CONNEALY: Again, wood-frame construction, you'll see basically like plywood.

HENRY: But even Connealy, the state fire marshal, doesn't have the authority to inspect those facilities. The owners have to voluntarily let him in. Pickett, the El Paso lawmaker, says he wants to propose narrow legislation that would change how ammonium nitrate is stored. But it could be a tough sell on his regulation-averse committee.

To understand why, just listen to this exchange from Monday's hearing between Republican State Representative Dan Flynn and Fire Marshal Connealy. Flynn said he's been hearing from old-timers in his district who didn't want any changes. After all, they've been working with ammonium nitrate for decades without it blowing up on them.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE DAN FLYNN: What has kept that from happening, just luck?

CONNEALY: I would have to say yes, quite frankly. The two worst - two of the worst - among the worst disasters in Texas in industrial facilities involved ammonium nitrate.

FLYNN: But it is a question that keeps coming up from a lot of folks and - well, you just going to put us out of business. We're just going to quit.

HENRY: Back in West, Mayor Muska says, regulations can strike a balance. Yes, they'll cost money but...

MUSKA: Well, look at our cost. Our cost was tremendous: 13 firemen, 15 total. I think it would be worth it. And I don't want another mayor in another town to go through what we just went through.

HENRY: State lawmakers could have some new rules proposed by this summer. If passed, when the legislature meets again next year, they'll likely give fertilizer facilities a few more years to make any necessary improvement in fire safety. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Terrence Henry in West, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.