The Reality Behind the West Explosion: It Wasn't Truly an Accident

Categories: Schutze

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The plaintive tone is so heart-wrenching, the request itself so naïve, that one is tempted not to respond at all. But in the case of the West fertilizer explosion, silence is at least complicity. It may even be the heart of the crime.

In an open-letter opinion column on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News today, a young chemist who lives in Zionsville, Indiana, urges Texas to adopt a comprehensive statewide system of reporting and other storage and handling controls for ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals. Ammonium nitrate is blamed in the April 17 fire and blast in West that killed 15 people, including 10 first responders, and injured an estimated 200 to 300 others.

Why is Tim White, a chemist in Indiana, writing on the op-ed page of a Dallas newspaper about a Texas disaster? His brother-in-law Kevin Sanders was one of the first volunteer firemen killed when they showed up to fight what they thought was only a fire. The blast in West burdened White's extended family with grief they will carry to their graves.

White makes what I think is a non-debatable point -- that if firemen had known the plant was about to blow, they would not have rushed straight to it, spending their time instead evacuating residents from the surrounding area. At one level, White's plea for a sane system of reporting and regulation makes obvious sense. At another, he misses a dark underlying reality.

The explosion in West was not an accident. It happened exactly the way Texas intended for it to happen. The firemen did not know quantities of a dangerous explosive chemical were stored in the plant for two reasons: 1) Texas is one of only four states in the union that lack a statewide fire code, and 2) Texas has made it against the law for smaller counties to adopt their own codes.

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State Farm
Since the explosion, local officials in West have conspired with state officials to block even a rudimentary hospital census of injuries. Last Saturday, Morning News reporter Sue Ambrose had an appalling piece in the paper quoting a McLennan County official who told her no such study was under way locally because local officials did not want to amass any evidence that might pinpoint blame for the blast. Ambrose reported that State Health Commissioner David Lakey wouldn't even respond to her questions about why no state study was under way.

Weeks after the blast, WFAA television investigative reporter Brett Shipp reported that McLennan County had been collecting an $80,000 a year federal grant to pay for establishment of a local emergency planning committee to deal with risks like the fertilizer plant blast but had never established the committee.

In his op-ed piece today, White says: "The goal of a safer and better country should be incentive enough to try to make the accident in West the last ammonium nitrate disaster."

But here is the terrible truth, Mr. White, an ugly secret we harbor here in Texas. None of it was an accident. The utter lack of social or communal responsibility that led to the blast was no accident. The shocking lack of a comprehensive response after the blast was no accident.

Five days after the blast, before all the bodies were even in the ground, both Governor Rick Perry and West Mayor Tommy Muska had completed their analysis of the event and told reporters confidently that no new regulations were needed.

"Through their elected officials," Perry told The New York Times, Texans "clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight." Muska seconded, saying calls for better regulation were mere, "Monday morning quarterbacking."

What is deliberate, then, what is not an accident, is that people are allowed to store large quantities of explosive materials near schools and nursing homes in Texas with no comprehensive reporting requirements. There are no consistent statewide safety regulations governing the storage of explosive materials. And if a bomb does go off and kill innocent people including volunteer first responders, no comprehensive study of death and injury from the blast will be carried out. The openly stated purpose of this conspiracy is to protect government officials from blame.

The officials openly justify this system by telling us that Texans don't believe in regulation. But the system itself is the most rigid kind of regulation there is -- regulation by default, regulation to protect the guilty from the claims of the innocent. And that, very sadly, Mr. White, is not an accident.


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40 comments
Americano
Americano

So "Texas" is trying to kill us all with grain elevators and chemicals?  If you believe that, you should move somewhere safe, like Chicago.

whitman
whitman

It's called "deregulation." It's called "government on the backs of business." That's why these things happen. Contact your local Republican, they are the ones promoting this.

mysmallwheels
mysmallwheels

The last month or so, we've seen the Lege & Goober attack anything and everything. Texas, at the very moment changes in voting laws were being sought to reduce the Feds overlook into our redistricting,was found guilty of gerrymandering to protect conservative pols elections. I agree, West's explosion was bad; as bad as the BP plant fire in Texas City ?   That plant was operated by Texaco, with the same manager for years, only paying a cursory fine to keep regulators and investigators out.Since the very companies you  believe need better and more comprehensive rules are core funders for Texas GOP, nothing will happen: Goober Perry will grin his evil little grin.

PerryMoore
PerryMoore

"The explosion in West was not an accident. It happened exactly the way Texas intended for it to happen."

Gee whiz, I hope that Texas isn't sitting on its back porch this morning, willing that 60 gallons of gasoline in my garage to explode.

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

Too small for FEMA to get involved but big enough to demagogue, politicize and posture by issuing Executive Orders.  

If this is not a disaster deserving federal assistance then why is the federal government making a federal case out of it?

Why, it's the reddest of red states and the Democrats want to turn it blue.  

in the name of social justice, of course.

corkyvonluxembourg
corkyvonluxembourg

"The explosion in West was not an accident. It happened exactly the way Texas intended for it to happen."

Only leftist assholes like you would say such a disgusting, stupid thing. Blaming it on Republicans is pathetic.

animas
animas

Texas does not believe in any meaningful regulation restricting   Republican friendly big industry activities- even those potentially harmful to the public (powerful lobbys and donors--oil and gas,utilities, speculators, transport industries, national chains paying minimum wages,etc have known this for years).  The "soft targets'-average folks who can't fight back  (small business ),  are  thuggishly over regulated here.Thousands of  state employees will swarm all over your small business and fine you into oblivion if you overlook one of a myriad of pesky little  "paper work" regulations, and God forbid if you are a small businessman and don't collect every cent of sales tax, miss an over inflated property tax payment, etc.  The problem is--this being Texas-, the regulators often are not properly versed in the technologies they regulate--and they are always backed up by the  AGs office--for example the women's clinic in the mid cities  providing low cost medical services to poor patients which was fined  HUNDREDS of thousands of dollars and almost put out of business in 2012 because they utilized Canadian IUDs--to enable them to provide cost effective services.  The irony is that theTDH  henchmen didn't realize that the IUDs were identical to those used in the US (same manufacturer) --there was no safety issue involved.  . 

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

For anyone who wonders WHY the Republicans would allow this kind of unsecured explosives -  bear in mind that these are the exact same chemicals that they used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in OKC in the 1990's, and that they used to plant pipe bombs in mail boxes to try to kill US Federal postal workers just a few years ago.

Not all Republicans are in on it, and many are simply in denial about what their fellows are up to - but there's no denying that they are actively fighting a shooting war against the American people..

schermbeck
schermbeck

Dallas is about to allow the same set of circumstances to occur here by not demanding FULL disclosure of all chemicals and explosives used in fracking that are on a site at any given time. City Staff still want to give exceptions for trade secrets and rely on MSDS sheets. What first responders must know as they head to an accident is - are there any dangerous substances I need to know about and, If so, what are they, how much is there, and where are they located. Dallas - and industry - doesn't want to give them that information.

whocareswhatithink
whocareswhatithink

Too much regulation you become California/NY etc etc because now companies are moving out in droves.... Its a chemical plant, like many other places that hold dangerous chemicals they have a very high risk of exploding. Its a risk that counties and employees are willing to take and no matter the amount of regulation you cannot stop chemical explosions from happening...what you can stop from happening is Government and people building so close to these plants because the land is cheap without hindering too much financially on governments and people and thus avoiding further damage to people and still maintain a business friendly state. Advise to parents and people.....Don't live near a chemical plant or factory that has explosive material or send your children to a school close to a chemical plant or factory.....

Tom434
Tom434

The explosion in West was not an accident. It happened exactly the way Texas intended for it to happen. The firemen did not know quantities of a dangerous explosive chemical were stored in the plant for two reasons: 1) Texas is one of only four states in the union that lack a statewide fire code, and 2) Texas has made it against the law for smaller counties to adopt their own codes.

That was my first impression but since the foreman of West Fertilizer Company was a member of the fire department and was killed in the blast I find it hard to believe they didn't know what was in the facility.  It's an insult to the dead firefighters to say they were not aware of what was stored there.

CODY DRAGOO: Firefighter, NASCAR fan, family man

Dragoo, 50, a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department, also worked at the fertilizer plant. Dragoo was born in Billings, Mont., and graduated from Montana State University with a degree in agriculture. He enjoyed hunting, fishing, cooking, watching NASCAR and being with his family and friends.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

If you want to impose some regulations in Texas, you're gonna have to place them in our cold, dead hands.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

So Texas regulates the gasoline containers for 5 gallons of gasoline but not the storage or handling of tons ammonium nitrate. There is not a stack of bodies tall enough to offset the amount of profit this governor is willing to protect.

Bremarks
Bremarks

Great post.  And if Texas is grossly negligent, Gov. OOPS and the West Mayor (who, after this horrible tragedy, should know better) should stop demanding the federal government cover all their costs. 

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

President Obama today signed an executive order aimed at improving safety and security at facilities that store and manufacture hazardous chemicals. ---Dallas Morning News, 8.1.2013


mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@holmantx 

LMAO! How ANYONE would criticize Obama for issuing an Executive Order requiring the various federal agencies (I recall it is 9 of them) to produce a single set of standards on the safe storage and manufacture of potentially hazardous chemicals is baffling.

after all, we should try to do what is possible to not have another deadly situation like West occur again. at least to rational people it would seem....

to politicize the Executive Order such as you do is juvenile at best and belittling the value of people's lives at the worst.

Wolverine_Fleabag
Wolverine_Fleabag

Very true Corky.

Jim Schutze-you know that sentence is a lie. Perhaps you can share when the murder charges will be filed?

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

@corkyvonluxembourg 

it's a variant on the ol' tried and true "Republicans want to kill your babies" schtick. 

Some people wrap themselves in the flag.  Others, dead bodies.

animas
animas

  Interesting but unlikely premise:There is no concrete evidence that  Republicans in this state, or in general possess that much imagination or resourcefulness.  It would require at least an average IQ.

Willie
Willie

@schermbeck Nice screed.  Has the fire department indicated that this is a real issue?  Here's a list of stuff in fracking fluid:  http://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used.  I don't see anything that comes to close to being an unstable explosive compound on the list.  I know that you're going to bitch that not every conceivable chemical is on the list, but it is very representative of what's in fracking fluid.  It is reasonable to provide industry some degree of confidentiality because companies are always working to improve the efficacy of their fluids.  

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

So people who live near tons of explosives assume the risk and are willing elements of collateral damage? I don't think so. The location of their residence did not explode, the ammonium nitrate did. The facility's owners are indisputably liable for the explosion and its consequences. Thank god they had the sense to purchase a $1,000,000 insurance policy. Ammonium nitrate is one of terrorists' explosives of choice. If saving a few small towns is not worth the costs of regulation, perhaps preventing a few more OKC bombings rises to that level.

wcvemail
wcvemail

 That's amazingly short-sighted and condescending.
1. "very high risk" - how high, and how high the explosion? At least provide residents and gov't responders the honest truth about what's stored/made there.

2. The people were there before the plant, so obviously to the rest of us, "building so close" was not a choice. This is so different than people moving under an airport's flight path and then complaining about the noise.

3. Many of West's citizens obviously worked at the plant. There are very limited career opportunities in a tiny, farming town, but you don't know that. In your dream world, people freely and easily move for a new job to a new town. That's condescending and out of touch.

fracquestions
fracquestions

@Tom434 Many of the dead firefighters were NOT members of the West Volunteer Fire Department. Some were Dallas firefighters who happened to live in or near west, and who responded because a fire alarm was reported.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@Tom434 With respect for the departed, and in acknowledgment of your point about firefighters' knowledge about the contents, I wonder if they truly understood what power could be unleashed. My late father was an instructor at the annual Texas A&M firefighters' school, eagerly attended by many small-town fire dept. volunteers who soaked up all the training they could, but as volunteers, their practice and updating of knowledge was usually limited to one such formal training per year.

It's one thing to know, generally, that the stuff is explosive, but it's quite another to translate that knowledge into perimeter calculations and such. We'll never know what value that wasted $80,000/year could have bought for the responders in terms of training, emergency planning, etc.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz I dislike the smell of cynicism on me, but I must point out that with Texas' proudly litigious, anti-federal attorney general in an electoral campaign, that executive order hasn't the chance of a spitball in hell in Texas.

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

@mavdog @holmantx I'm surprised you have any ass left, as much as you laugh, oh redlipped, wide-eyed and laffer of citizen's misfortunes.

We've been over this before.  West was an anomaly (one explosion, a few in other states over a very long period of time) and this state is more than capable of regulating country AM fertilizer plants (as all the states regulate country plants, as defined), and besides, it is the job of the people through our Congress to legislate such action, not the Executive Branch by EO.

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

@animas 

That's what I used to think, too.  But it turns out - you don't have to be all that smart to murder innocent Americans.  In fact, extreme ignorance seems to be a prerequisite for such behavior.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@Willie @schermbeck 

there are several chemicals on that list that are combustable/flammable.

the fact that they are not "unstable" really isn't the issue. they certainly can be "explosive".

whocareswhatithink
whocareswhatithink

@JimSX @whocareswhatithink Its not that hard... Google paramount refineries addresses in California...Google will show you the nice little map where the 3 refineries are...which have been around since the 1930's (FYI) then when looking at the maps, just notice the nice schools across the road....which came along time after the 1930's. Ahhhh yes, the govt is notorious for building schools next to refineries and chemical plants because the land was cheap...people see a big refinery across the road and say - why yes, I will send my child to school there and I'll even buy a house across the road...I mean the plant could explode and we could all die, but heck, what a deal and if the rest of my family die and I survive, well I guess I can just sue them and live happily ever after with some money in my pocket. Joyess.......The difference between Somalia, Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana etc etc...is they have oil refineries no where near civilization....They may shoot and slaughter there people in the street, but they are certainly not going to blow them up with a chemical explosion.

BTW - There are no oil refineries in Somalia but they do have sugar refineries, which is a major export for them...as is charcoal, but that's for another discussion about Trees

fracquestions
fracquestions

@wcvemail Actually, the plant was there long before those houses, schools, nursing homes, apartments, etc., were built. Fault lies with local and state officials who allowed building habitable structures near a chemical storage plant, as well as operators of the plant who (1) improperly and unsafely stored hazardous chemicals, (2) had no emergency plans for dealing with an accident involving fire and explosion, and (3) had only $1 million in liability insurance.

whocareswhatithink
whocareswhatithink

@wcvemail Hmmm

1) Public knowledge - a simple internet search would have provided anyone with WHAT was stored there.The company sold ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia, both commonly used as fertilizers. It had notified state and local emergency management officials of its stock of both in its most recent declaration of hazardous chemicals, filed in February....what they did not seem to file, was how much, albeit that is still debatable and we will most likely never really know.....ALSO they did NOT make any of those chemicals there

2) No, people were NOT there before the plant - the downtown was, sure but the schools and apartments around it were built after, the West plant was there in the 1960's, the high school is relatively new and the other schools came after it. Even the nursing home came after the plant.

3)West has a population of approx. 2800ppl - Adair Grain is the owner of the plant, family owned business and only has 7-8employees...lets say they had 100 employees at the plant (total exaggeration because it was a small plant) that is hardly MOST OF THE TOWN

So who's out of touch??? I'll wear the condescending hat - but at least I know what I'm talking about, not spurting off a make believe story because you want it to fit

Willie
Willie

@wcvemail @Myrna.Minkoff-Katz The order stipulates that the government start doing some research and figure out all the holes in the mishmash of rules.  Then EPA will have to write the draft rules, post them for comment, rewrite them, establish compliance dates, litigate industry lawsuits, then revise the rules, establish new compliance dates, litigate lawsuits from environmental groups because they don't issue the rules on time, then promulgate the final rules, which will give industry ample amount of time to get into compliance.  We should be well into retirement or the grave (or on the mantle) by then.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@holmantx

uh, the issue is more encompassing than just "fertilizer plants" and ammonium nitrate.

from the EO:

Within 135 days of the date of this order, the Working Group shall develop a plan to support and further enable efforts by State regulators, State, local, and tribal emergency responders, chemical facility owners and operators, and local and tribal communities to work together to improve chemical facility safety and security.

Again, how any intelligent person could be against this order is beyond me. but then you're not very intelligent, so go figure....

the word "Texas" never appears in the EO.

but HEY! America could just do nothing and have another tragedy happen if a chemical explosion occurs. Guess you have the right to promote that philosophy as absurd as it is. yes, that's your mantra, the "Do Nothing" strategy.

Schmuck.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

Galveston was another anomaly. While these events are few and far between, when they occur the costs are extreme. In the private sector this risk is hedged with insurance, but this requires the owner to purchase adequate coverage. The question is adequacy. The few insurance requirements of which I am aware are ridiculously low, such as auto insurance.

If the West company had an adequate policy the insurance company may have inspected it more frequently and require safety standards. These same higher levels of regulation could be imposed by the legislature.

In the end, a rational policy of safe operations can be achieved either way, which raises the question, if insurance company imposed regulation is "good" then why is state regulation "bad." Of course the state would have to require insurance, but this seems to be conservative anathema, unless it involves the motorist crashing into your car.

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

@mavdog @holmantx

Based on data from the Guardian, there have been at least 16 unintended explosions of ammonium nitrate since 1921 that have led to casualties. Six of those have occurred in the United States.  

http://tinyurl.com/q68bm2t

According to a report from the Fertilizer Institute, there are 44 production plants around the country. And 30 of those are nitrogen plants.  West, Texas isn’t included in the above numbers. That’s because the fertilizer facility that exploded wasn’t a production plant. It was a retail facility, one of approximately 6,000 around the country that sells directly to farmers in a 50- to 100-mile radius. “There is no national list of retail facilities, but each state registers and regulates them,” Kathy Mathers, VP of Public Affairs at The Fertilizer Institute.

Let the states do their job.  Particularly on these RETAIL fertilizer plants that only serve an area 50 to 100 miles around them (no interstate commerce).  And try to muster up enough faith in an America you obviously know nothing about.

But HEY! never let a crisis go to waste, right?  Particularly if you can keep Texas as the poster child for states who don't care about their citizens.

Punk.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@holmantx 

oh holman, we all know you have the most ass of anyone, as you are a complete ass...

as has been apparent to most everyone who has intelligence, there is a lack of regulation and oversight of industry storage and manufacture of hazardous materials. to say it was "an anomaly" doesn't mean it won't happen again. most rational peeople would wish for every effort to be made to lower the chance of a repeat, we'll just put you on the side of those who don't seem to care.

you should educate yourself on the federal government. the agencies included in the executive order are within by the executive branch of the federal government.it is certainly within the power of the president for the executive order to be issued.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@fracquestions @wcvemail Agreed, and my error noted above. Fault does indeed lie with local/state officials. And (4) took 80K/year to develop emgcy plans, but did nothing.

fracquestions
fracquestions

@whocareswhatithink @wcvemail Actually, there can be no debate as to whether or not West Fertilizer filed reports with the state as to the quantities of hazardous materials stored on-site. Having been in the chemical manufacturing business for nearly 8 years I can assure you that reports are required by local fire departments and state regulatory agencies. Even if all records on-site at West Fertilizer were vaporized by the explosion and fire there would still be copies of those reports on file with both the local fire department AND state regulatory agencies.

So, proving whether or not West filed those reports is relatively easy. If copies are not available from the fire department and state agencies, then it can safely be assumed that no such reports were ever filed.

wcvemail
wcvemail

@whocareswhatithink @wcvemail OK, I stand corrected on the relative newness of the residences compared to the plant -I just assumed, and look where that got me.

But I didn't say "most of the town" was employed at the plant, just "many." (not sure that makes a diff)

I do stand by my point that expecting lower-middle-class, rural folks to pack the families and change jobs because of the undetermined risk of explosion is not a reasonable or realistic expectation or solution.

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