West Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

April 23, 2013 — The West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people last week has led many people to ask why homes, churches, schools, a nursing home, and businesses were allowed to be built so close to a storage facility containing up to 270 tons of highly-explosive chemicals. Although previous reports said the incident involved anhydrous ammonia, more recent reports indicate that ammonium nitrate was the likely explosive.

Reporters who have interviewed residents of West have found that many people believe the incident was an accident, and they do not blame Donald Adair, a lifelong resident of West and the owner of West Fertilizer Company. The Adair family has declined interviews, but issued a statement, saying: “My heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community.” The owners and employees of Adair Grain and West Fertilizer are complying with investigating agencies.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has deployed a “large investigation team” to investigate the cause of the fertilizer plant explosion and whether it could have been prevented. However, the investigation could take quite some time. The independent organization was created by Congress in 1998, operates with a $10.5 million dollar budget, and has just 20 employees. Investigations of previous explosions have taken years — for example, the Tesoro oil refinery explosion in Anacortes, Washington, which killed seven workers.

Although the investigation is still in its most preliminary stages, some lawmakers are mulling tougher zoning regulations. A spokeswoman for Thomas Carper of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said he “will examine the impact of existing federal safety and security regulations on facilities like West Fertilizer and seek to identify whether additional steps should be taken to protect the public.” Other government officials have said that it may be premature to suggest new requirements for upgrades to existing safety technology.

Many have pointed out that there was already regulatory framework in place to require stricter safety precautions. West Fertilizer contained enough high-risk chemicals that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could have regulated the site under the Chemical Facility Antiterrorism Standards program.

However, many residents of West are not pointing the finger at West Fertilizer. According to a Reuters interview with Chuck Smith, a resident who helped his neighbors after the explosion:

“When all is said and done, they call them accidents for a reason. I mean the people that work there, the people that own that place, that go there … all of them were raised here, have kids here, have family here,” he said. “There was no malicious intent. There was no trying to skimp.”

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