West Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

May 3, 2013 — Reuters has reported that West Fertilizer Company, the site of a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in Texas last month, was a repeat target of theft by intruders who were after chemicals used to make methamphetamine. Police records indicate that officers responded to at least 11 reports of burglaries and five ammonia leaks over the past 12 years.

There is no evidence that the initial fire before the explosion in West was caused by a security breach or a theft at the plant, but investigators are treating the area as a crime scene or an “archeological dig” until proven otherwise. The explosion has raised concerns about lax building regulations, workplace safety inspections, and the vulnerability of dangerous chemical storage facilities to terrorist attacks.

The most recent theft at West Fertilizer was reported in October 2012, when thieves interfered with tank valves. A decade earlier, the plant manager told police officers that thieves were stealing four to five gallons of liquid anhydrous ammonia every three days. The liquid chemical can be used to make methamphetamine.

Preliminary investigations have ruled out anhydrous ammonia as the source of the explosion. Two storage tanks holding thousands of gallons of anhydrous ammonia under high-pressure were partially shielded from the explosion by a wall, which suggests that they probably did not cause the explosion.

However, the repeat thefts at West Fertilizer are concerning from a security standpoint. According to Reuters, there was no security guard at the plant, the perimeter was not fenced, and there were no burglar alarms. Chemical safety experts were concerned about potential vulnerability to thefts, arson, or even a terrorist attack.

Reuters reviewed documents filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which indicate that West Fertilizer was storing 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, the ingredient used in home-made explosives, but never reported to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as is required by law for facilities that store more than 10,000 pounds of the chemical.

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