Barack Obama, Chemical Weapons, Environmental Defense Fund, McLennan County, McLennan County Texas, Texas, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion, West Fertilizer Co.
Eight months after fertilizer plant blast, no major safety changes result; legislation, lawsuits remain up in the air
In the ritual of modern disaster politics, catastrophes are closely followed by elected officials on the scene to praise local grit and promise swift relief.
Serious remedies and sweeping reforms, in many instances, arrive next.
The aftermath of the April 17 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. proved in part to be no exception. Within days of the blast, President Barack Obama came to McLennan County. So did Gov. Rick Perry and both U.S. senators from Texas.
Relief has come in the form of government checks. The town is rebuilding.
Major reforms, however, have yet to be designed, much less implemented.
In the weeks after the West disaster, investigators identified numerous ways it might have been prevented — or at least mitigated.
Yet eight months after 15 people died and hundreds were injured, no significant measures have been adopted by state government to keep something like it from occurring again.
Now, new houses rise in the lots where homes were destroyed. And on the streets downtown, residents talk of a rebound.
But outside the city, in many ways, it’s as if nothing happened.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, speaking at West on the last day of August, told residents: “We get to define our lives by how we respond to the challenges we face.”
This is the state’s response at year’s end:
The Legislature, though it was in session when the plant blew up, did little beyond holding hearings.
Perry has been silent on specific changes in Texas’ laws or regulatory approach.
Texas has taken no measurable steps toward adopting a statewide fire code, which could have prevented the blast.
The state has not tightened rules for storing or securing ammonium nitrate, the chemical that exploded at West.
Texas still does not require facilities that stockpile such materials to carry liability insurance.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency whose mission includes the broader role of protecting the public’s health, has abandoned any role in West-related matters. “We haven’t really been involved,” an agency spokesman said.
Last month, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst instructed a Senate committee to study “regulatory and insurance requirements for the storage of ammonium nitrate.” He added that any changes should not cause “duplicitous practices and procedures for the Texas workforce.”
Such caution is not out of character for a state long wary of rules that might inhibit commerce.
Josh Havens, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Perry believes “that smart and fair regulations, designed to protect citizens without creating an overly burdensome environment for business, are a key to economic success in this state and the nation.”
The governor has expressed no position on what the Legislature should do in response to West, Havens said. “It is their [legislators’] prerogative to review these statutes and propose any changes. … It would be premature to create more regulations or even speculate on what could have been done differently to prevent the incident from occurring without identifying a definitive cause of the incident.”
Elena Craft, an Austin-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the reluctance to regulate has left others at risk. “There’s nothing that’s been proposed or put in place that would be a meaningful long-term plan that would prevent another event like West,” she said.
At 7:29 p.m. on April 17, a small fire broke out in the seed room of the West Fertilizer Co.’s fertilizer and seed building, a 13,000-square-foot structure by the train tracks on the northeast side of town.
Three minutes later, a dispatcher alerted West’s 33 volunteer firefighters via beeper. Most were relaxing after working their day jobs.
As they raced to the scene, the firefighters had no pre-established plan.
The West Fire department had never trained to fight a fire at the plant, except for a walk-through years before. The state does not regulate volunteer fire departments and does not mandate any minimum training standards for volunteer firefighters in Texas.
As the fire at the plant grew, Chief George Nors and Assistant Chief Emanuel Mitchell were worried about the smoke blowing over a nearby neighborhood, Nors recalled. They were even more concerned about the numerous tanks of anhydrous ammonia stored at the plant.
Anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer kept under pressure in liquid form, becomes a potentially lethal gas if it leaks.
Over the years, the fire department had been called on several occasions when pop-off safety valves at the plant leaked. West Fertilizer had no secure fencing, and police and sheriff deputies had also responded numerous times to reports of burglaries. That included attempted theft of anhydrous ammonia, which can be used to make methamphetamine.
The firefighters knew generally that the plant also stored ammonium nitrate. A fertilizer ingredient whose pellets look like puffy grains of rice, it is commonly used on farms around the region.
Fertilizer businesses, such as West Fertilizer Co., must file so-called Tier II reports with the state, as well as with local emergency planning committees and fire departments. These reports specify the maximum amount of hazardous material on hand the previous calendar year.
The Texas Department of State Health Services, along with the local county emergency director and the fire department, all received 2012 Tier II reports on West Fertilizer Co. The report indicated the company had at least 270 tons of ammonium nitrate in a storage building in 2012.
But West’s fire chief said his volunteers didn’t know how much ammonium nitrate was stored at the facility on any given day.
McLennan County received the standard Tier II form. But they said that state regulators did nothing to red-flag the high levels of the potentially dangerous chemical stored by West Fertilizer — or draw attention to the chemical’s explosive risks.
No one “from the state ever came to us and said, ‘Hey, you need to look at this,’” McLennan County emergency coordinator Frank Patterson said.
Under certain conditions, such as compression and intense heat, ammonium nitrate fertilizer can explode.
West’s volunteer firefighters said they had always heard that ammonium nitrate was a stable chemical — and they had received no contrary information from state or county officials. They said they did not know the explosive potential of ammonium nitrate at high temperatures.
“At the time, you have a fire of that magnitude, your adrenaline’s rushing. You’re not thinking about this thing exploding,” West Fire Capt. C.J. Gillaspie said. “You’re not thinking about how much ammonium nitrate is in there. [Or] what’s in there that’s combustible. Golf cart, fork lift, front end motors. You don’t think about any of that.”
An apartment complex near the West fertilizer plant sustained major damage in the explosion. (G.J. McCarthy/Staff Photographer)
At 7:41 p.m., minutes after arriving on the scene, firefighters called for assistance. Two hundred yards west of the site, staff and patients at the West Rest Haven nursing home looked on with dread at the spreading fire and smoke.
The nursing home had been built in the late 1960s and licensed for 145 beds. Few had questioned the wisdom of putting a nursing home — or a nearby middle school — so close to a fertilizer plant.
“The town grew up around that plant,” Patterson said. “Like many small towns.”
Now, worried about smoke and toxic fumes, nursing home attendants began moving patients to the side of the home farthest from the burning plant.
At the plant, conditions inside the wooden fertilizer and seed building deteriorated rapidly. The wooden bins holding tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire, turning into cauldrons that cooked the dangerous chemical.
At 7:51 pm, only 22 minutes after the fire started, two explosions — one small and the other large — erupted inside the plant milliseconds apart.
Investigators later determined that 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up with a concussive force of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT — at least three times more powerful than the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The West blast triggered a swirling firestorm that immediately engulfed the site. Smoke mushroomed over the plant and pooled across the sky.
The explosion flung tons of earth into the air, creating a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The shock wave startled residents in Waxahachie nearly 50 miles away. Investigators found one piece of evidence that landed more than 2 miles from the plant.
Twelve first responders, including firefighters and emergency services technicians, died instantly from blunt-force trauma and burns.
Victims of the West explosion were honored during a memorial service in April in Waco. (Michael Ainsworth/Staff Photographer)
Three civilians also died in the explosion. Two lived across the train tracks at a nearby 22-unit apartment that was demolished.
The other was a 96-year-old man at the nursing home. There, ceilings and roofs collapsed, walls crumbled and windows shattered, throwing glass shards everywhere. Many of the residents were trapped in their beds, covered by broken sheetrock, glass and other debris.
Battling smoke and choking on dust, staff and volunteers moved patients to a nearby football field in their wheelchairs — sometimes two to a chair, often without oxygen tanks or medications. Many of the more than 130 nursing home residents who survived were injured to varying degrees.
The death toll might have been higher if the blast had happened during school hours. The explosion damaged the town’s high school, intermediate school and middle school buildings, located within a mile of the fertilizer plant.
Block after block of homes, more than 350 residences in all, sustained structural damage, including collapsed roofs and walls. About 150 were destroyed. City roads and water and sewer pipes were also damaged.
“The community damage we saw at West was the worst of any chemical accident in the [U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s] history,” Jared Denton, an investigator for the CSB, said in a video produced for the agency.
The Insurance Council of Texas estimated total damage in the town could exceed $100 million.
The initial investigation by local, state and federal agencies compared in scale with the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attack, authorities said.
Over a month’s time, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with state investigators, logged 20,000 hours, interviewed 400 people, followed 200-plus leads, sifted through 300,000 pounds of corn by hand. They also scoured 37 city blocks damaged by the blast for clues.
At the end of the site excavation, investigators announced three possible causes for the fire: a golf cart whose battery may have over-heated, the plant’s 120-volt electrical system or arson.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, speaking at a news conference in West, vowed to continue the investigation as long as necessary. “We’re going to leave no stone unturned,” he told reporters.
Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy told reporters gathered at West High School in May that he would continue the investigation as long as necessary. (Tom Fox/Staff Photographer)
Eight months later, the investigation remains open. “Believe it or not, we are still actively investigating leads,” said Francesca Perot, ATF spokeswoman. “We’re doing some laboratory testing.”
Despite that uncertainty, most now agree that automatic fire suppression equipment could have extinguished the small blaze before it could spread to the ammonium nitrate.
“The whole thing wouldn’t have been an event if the seed house would have been sprinklered,” said West Mayor Tommy Muska, who also serves on West’s volunteer fire department.
But it wasn’t and was not required to be. Texas has no statewide fire code.
State law allows counties to adopt a fire code only if they have a population greater than 250,000, or are adjacent to such a county. That means 173 of Texas’ 254 counties are excluded.
Because it is adjacent to Bell County, which meets the population standard, McLennan County could have had a fire code but never adopted one. It still hasn’t done so.
“It’s an ongoing discussion,” said Patterson, emergency operations coordinator for the county.
The explosion in West has focused attention on other parts of Texas where people reside near ammonium nitrate storage facilities.
Some 20,000 people live within a half mile of the more than 70 sites in Texas that reported having large stockpiles of ammonium nitrate, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of state data.
Georgetown Fire Chief John Sullivan, whose department covers a large ammonium nitrate storage facility, was one of many fire officials who began reviewing emergency response plans after West. That was done, he said, so that “we don’t let those lives be lost in vain.”
The broader response has been inconsistent.
No government agency has overall responsibility to ensure the safekeeping of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Instead, various agencies own small slices of responsibility — creating confusion and gaps in monitoring.
Testifying before Congress in June, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, said ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage is regulated by a jumble of statutes — “a patchwork that has many large holes.”
At state hearings, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality chairman Bryan Shaw said ensuring that ammonium nitrate was safely stored was the responsibility of the Office of the Texas State Chemist.
But state chemist Tim Herrman said his office checks only on security from theft, not for risks of explosions.
Information about where and how ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals are stored has not been easily accessible to the public.
Only after The News made a formal request under the state Public Information Act did the Texas Department of State Health Services release the chemical disclosure information that that companies must submit.
Recently, the state chemist’s advisory committee approved a plan to require ammonium nitrate facilities to post a placard informing emergency responders about fire risks.
Also, fertilizer facilities will no longer be able to renew their registration unless they file a Tier II chemical inventory report as required by the federal government.
Craft, the environmental scientist, said such measures don’t go far enough to protect the public. She noted that West Fertilizer Co. did file a Tier II report with the state, but that didn’t prevent the explosion. “How much more evidence,” she said, “do you need that the status quo is not working?”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office has offered help to communities with ammonium nitrate facilities. This includes meeting with plant personnel, first responders and local officials to go over best practices for storage of ammonium nitrate and responding to fire.
“We want to assist and we are going to assist,” said Texas Fire Marshal Connealy. “But this is still primarily a local jurisdictional issue.”
Connealy added: “We want to make sure that we’re encouraging them to do the things they need to do at the local level, such as fire planning at these facilities, doing the necessary training to prepare.”
The state is not trying to thwart the fertilizer business, Connealy said. “But, if we’re going to sell that product, let’s make sure to follow best practices.”
Participation, however is voluntary.
In early November, the agency went live with a searchable database, “Ammonium Nitrate in Texas.” By entering a ZIP code into a website, residents can find out whether there is a facility storing more than 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate within that area.
However, the information provided on the site does not provide the name or address of the facility — only the ZIP code in which it is located.
State Rep. Joe C. Pickett chaired a Texas legislative hearing in May into the West explosion. (Kye R. Lee/Staff Photographer)
Months after the West blast, the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held hearings on regulatory questions.
No bills related to these matters were introduced in the 2013 session, or the three special sessions that followed. The next regular session of the Legislature does not convene until January 2015.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he will push for change. “I’m committed to keeping this up,” said Pickett, chairman of the homeland security committee.
Pickett said his committee will meet early next year to discuss the possibility of legislation that would direct one state agency to regulate and inspect facilities such as West Fertilizer. “I think there does need to be an entity that does have the authority … to walk in and say, ‘You need to do this and this and this.’”
That would require consolidation of duties and clear mandates, and the selection of the agency to assume such responsibilities remains to be made. “That may be the state fire marshal’s office,” Pickett said. “May be.”
His committee also may consider related issues. “We don’t have a statewide fire code. I keep pressing that,” he said.
None of these would constitute sweeping alterations in the way the state does business, Pickett said. “We’re not talking major, major stuff here.”
Some of these measures have nonetheless been blocked in the past. Previous attempts to establish a fire code met with organized resistance from powerful home builders.
Pickett thinks such legislation may now have a better chance at passage. “What’s different about this is we’ve got an explosion in West,” he said. “It’s going to be politically incorrect to oppose that…Times are changing.”
Craft of the Environmental Defense Fund has her doubts. “We are not expecting much of anything from this current Legislature,” she said.
Some lawmakers have said that a mishmash of policies and a breakdown in communication among federal, state and local planners helped keep firefighters in the dark about the dangers of the fertilizer stored in West.
In response, President Obama signed an executive order in August directing federal agencies involved in overseeing dangerous chemicals to better share information and modernize standards.
The agencies also were ordered to improve how they work with other federal, state and local officials.
A few weeks after the presidential directive, the federal government issued new guidelines for storing and handling ammonium nitrate.
The detailed 19-page advisory — the first on ammonium nitrate in 15 years — goes into great detail about the chemical’s risks. It lists dozens of specific guidelines for companies storing the chemical. It also offers specific firefighting techniques and steps to make sure firefighters and communities are prepared.
Many of the guidelines, if they had already been in place, could have spared the town of West — or, at a minimum, the lives of its firefighters.
For example, the guidelines more clearly specified evacuation as an option in an ammonium nitrate fire — something West responders didn’t initially do.
The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, investigates major chemical accidents and develops safety recommendations to prevent their recurrence.
The board is in the middle of its investigation into the West explosion and hopes to issue a report by April with detailed recommendations for local, state and national stakeholders related to the ammonium nitrate business.
“There are multiple reasons for this incident occurring, not just one. So there will be a whole fleet of recommendations,” said Johnnie Banks, the board’s supervising investigator for the West explosion. “We’re looking at broad-reaching, high-level recommendations, as well as some that are very specific to the plant where this occurred.”
The St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption healing walk in July went past the ruins of West Rest Haven nursing home. Residents were evacuated to a football field after the fertilizer plant explosion. (Mona Reeder/Staff Photographer)
The owners of the West plant carried only $1 million in liability insurance. That would cover about 1 percent of the estimated property damage.
“If they’d carried $100 million in insurance, they wouldn’t be in business because they couldn’t afford the premium,” Mayor Muska said.
Pickett said his House committee will look at a possible change in the law. “There may be a recommendation for minimum insurance requirements,” he said.
Scores of victims of the blast have filed suit against West Fertilizer, as has the city of West. They also sued CF Industries, one of the nation’s two manufacturers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The company is said to have made the fertilizer that detonated.
Plaintiffs have alleged that CF Industries should have better instructed West Fertilizer Co. on storage methods or used an additive that lessened the ammonium nitrate’s volatility.
The legal matter is still in its early stages, as attorneys wrangle over scheduling and other issues. Getting to trial will take more than a year.
The Department of State Health Services still cannot say exactly how many people were injured in the explosion. The agency has assisted McLennan County in an investigation of injuries, and “we’ve identified at least 280 people seen in medical facilities either definitely or probably as a result of the explosion,” a spokeswoman said.
In the weeks after the explosion, 14 former Rest Haven patients died, almost double what’s normal for a two-month period at the nursing home, administrator Rose Ann Morris said.
The blast and the chaotic aftermath were intensely stressful events for the nursing home residents, Smith said. “If they were already ill, that may be just enough to push them over the edge,” he said.
West citizens have accepted government aid — including more than $16 million in federal grants and loans — but remain wary of enhanced regulations.
“You’ve got to look at the balance,” Muska said. “If the government gets in there and you have too heavy a hand, then you’ve created a monster.”
In many ways, Muska said, West was fortunate. School was not in session when the fertilizer plant blew. And the seasonal stocks of ammonium nitrate were low.
“If this would have happened in December, it would have been three times as bad,” he said. “They had already depleted their supply.”
As Muska spoke from his office in downtown West, a freight train rumbled past on the tracks that bisect the city’s business district.
Muska gestured. “Look at everything that’s going through this town… Hydrochloric acid, ammonium nitrate, you name it,” the mayor said. “We have a feed mill right here in town… It could catch fire and have a dust explosion.”
His point: Hazards are everywhere, and regulation has to be balanced against cost.
Sometimes simple rules make the most sense, the mayor said, such as a fire code that requires a sprinkler system. “That’s not that much regulation,” he said. “That’s not going to cost you that much.”
Eventually, Muska said, the city would like to develop the site of the West Fertilizer Co. as an industrial park. “We’re going to put something out there that doesn’t blow up,” he said.
And, he added, the new buildings will have fire sprinklers.
Ronnie Sykora hugged Carolyn Pustejovsky before the July healing walk. Her son Joey was one of 12 first-responders killed in the explosion. They had never trained to fight a fire at the plant that held ammonium nitrate. (Mona Reeder/Staff Photographer)
Greenpeace has listed 483 chemical facilities in the U.S. where 100,000 or more would be at risk from explosions.
According to Greenpeace, one in three Americans could fall victim to a similar poison gas disaster by virtue of living near upwards of 12,000 plants that store and use highly toxic substances. “A chemical disaster at just one of these facilities could kill or injure thousands of people with acute poisoning,” the group reports. Greenpeace has identified 483 U.S. facilities where 100,000 people or more would be at risk during a disaster. And one in five of those threatens areas with populations topping one million.
“Even though chemical plant safeguards fail every week, the chemical industry has largely refused to make their plants safer and more secure,” says Greenpeace. “Congress even amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to try and address this problem, but the amendment has gone largely unused.” The group would like to see the Obama Administration create new regulations under the Clean Air Act that will require such facilities to prevent chemical disasters by switching to safer alternatives.