A recent fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West, Texas killed 14 people, destroyed a nursing home and two schools, and left a 93-foot wide by 10-food deep crater. Some 200 people were injured and nearby residents were forced to flee from and evacuate their homes over safety concerns and the ongoing investigation. At least 50 homes were demolished in the explosion.
Two weeks later, residents are returning to collect what’s left of their homes. “It’s chaos, chaos, you know. It’s not just us. It’s everybody, our whole block, our whole community, everywhere you look, somebody’s hurting,” Cindy Grones told CBS News.
The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF); the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the Texas State Fire Marshal are investigating; ATF spokeswoman, Franceska Perot, said it could be another several weeks to determine what caused the explosion and the fire just prior, said CBS News. The only cause that has been ruled out is weather, the ATF said.
State records reveal that the West Fertilizer plant had a yearly capacity of 2,400 tons of ammonium nitrate, which is potentially explosive. The U.S. Homeland Security Department said the West Fertilizer Co. facility is not regulated under a Department program created to reduce certain terrorism risks at some high-risk chemical facilities, said CBS News. CBS-11 learned that Homeland Security is determining if the plant should have submitted paperwork about the chemicals stored there.
Ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive material that has been linked to industrial accidents and terrorist attacks. It was this solid fertilizer that Timothy McVeigh used to demolish the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City; 168 people died.
Adair Grain, Inc., the parent company of West Fertilizer Co., has been accused of negligence, according to court documents related to just-filed lawsuits, said Reuters. Adair Grain held 270 tons of ammonium nitrate as of December 31, according to a Texas Department of State Health Services report. “Texas has gone out of its way to maintain a reputation for low regulation,” said Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, wrote Bloomberg News. “We’re all for creating jobs and good conditions for business, but it shouldn’t cost you your life.”
West, Texas, Superintendent, Marty Crawford, said he had long worried about an explosion like the one two weeks ago. “We crossed our fingers that that could never happen,” Crawford said, speaking to reporters, according to Bloomberg News. The blast has raised concerns about land use near plants that handle dangerous chemicals, said Bloomberg News. The various federal and state regulations and zoning laws appear to favor property owners over people who live and work near the toxic materials.
By the grace of God, this was at night,” when children weren’t in school, said Texas Governor, Rick Perry. “How there were only 14 people who lost their lives is a bit of an amazement,” Perry added, said Bloomberg News. Perry, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott toured the area and reviewed the damage. All three agreed that changes must be made to prevent future explosions near homes and schools.
Government officials have not been quick to change zoning and land-use laws and federal regulations that could help stop dangerous chemical facilities from being built near schools and homes, said Kelly Haragan, environmental clinic director at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, wrote Bloomberg News. “These patterns take a long time to change,” said Haragan, and, “In some cases the companies were there first.” For its part, Texas, in its support of local businesses and a desire to bring more firms into the state, has been slow to increase industry’s regulatory mandates, said Perry. “We are a state that does not believe in overburdening businesses,” Perry noted, according to Bloomberg News.