West, Texas disaster a regulatory failure

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

West,TXThe West Fertilizer Co. explosion in West, Texas last week put an exclamation point on the need for government safety regulations and enforcement. The "free market" philosophy of no regulations and the mythical honor system imposed by the market place gets people killed.

This company appears to have pushed the envelope to see how much it could get away with — and due to lax regulations and enforcement by "business friendly" Texas regulatory agencies, it got away with quite a lot.

There is plenty of blame to go around here, from the company, to state regulators, to the local planning & zoning board of West, Texas (assuming it had one).

The Dallas Morning News reports today, West Fertilizer Co.'s environmental compliance problems go back decades:

West Fertilizer Co.’s problems complying with Texas environmental rules go back decades, state records show.

In
1984, the company moved two large pressurized tanks of liquid
anyhydrous ammonia, a potentially lethal poison, from a site in nearby
Hill County to its current location in West without notifying state
authorities.

Seven years passed before Texas regulators took
notice and told the company to fix its paperwork. The tanks had sat at
their new location, near homes, schools and a nursing home, with little
or no state oversight for all that time.

The company’s regulatory
history going back to 1976 comes to light as investigators seek the
cause of last week’s fertilizer explosion that killed at least 14
people.

For example, in 1987, the company — then known as West
Chemical and Fertilizer Co. — was venting ammonia that built up in
transfer pipes into the air despite explicit orders in its permit not to
do so. The company apparently changed its practices.

And in 2006,
a West police officer called a company employee to tell him an ammonia
tank valve was leaking. The employee confirmed the leak and “took the
NH3 [ammonia] tank out to the country at his farm,” according to a
handwritten note. “West Police followed him.”

That employee, Cody Dragoo, was killed in last week’s explosion.

Documents
in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s files were scanned
and posted online by Justin Ripple of Banks Environmental Data, a
consulting firm in Austin.

* * *

Tons of solid-form ammonium nitrate fertilizer at the company are the
focus of the explosion inquiry. Texas officials said the Office of the
Texas State Chemist, which regulates fertilizer, visited the company 12
times in 2012 and found no problems with the management of its material.

The chemist’s office, a division of Texas A&M University, is fighting a Dallas Morning News
request for inspection and inventory records, citing national security
concerns regarding ammonium nitrate, which can be highly explosive and
used in bombs.

Most uses of ammonium nitrate are still lightly
regulated compared with anhydrous ammonia. West Fertilizer sold both
products to local farmers.

The anhydrous ammonia was in two
12,000-gallon tanks immediately next to the fertilizer plant, which the
explosion wiped off the map. Ironically, aerial photos after the blast
indicate that the tanks survived.

* * *

[T]he Texas Air Control Board, a now-defunct state agency, granted the construction permit in January 1977. “Thank you for your interest and
cooperation in air pollution control,” agency executive director Charles
R. Barden wrote the company in a form letter.

The permit stated
explicitly that “this permit is non-transferrable from person to person
or from place to place.” It also contained special provisions, including
a requirement that when moving the product, “all vapors vented through
the compressor and never vented directly to the atmosphere.”

It
went on: “When relieving pressure from the connectors all vapors shall
be bled into an adequate volume of water and never directly to the
atmosphere.”

However, in August 1984, the company appears to have
directly violated a permit requirement. It moved the tanks to West
without telling the state.

“The anhydrous ammonia storage was
moved from Abbott, Texas, to West, Texas,” stated a permit renewal form,
apparently filled out by the company in 1991. “Operations at Abbott
were ceased at that time.”

Even when the problem came to light,
state regulators seemed to react with little concern. They voided the
old permit and expressed gratitude to the company.

“Thank you for
informing us of the status of this facility,” Cecil Bradford, a permits
official, wrote to West Chemical in January 1992.

That same year, the state issued a citation because the company had
moved two smaller ammonia tanks of 6,000 gallons each to its property in
West without a required construction permit. The company settled the
matter by agreeing not to store ammonia in them.

There is evidence
in the files, however, that the state had already overlooked the matter
of whether the tanks were where the permit said they were. In 1987, a
state inspector found “no violation … but a potential problem” because
the company was venting ammonia into the air.

Only after the state visit did the company change its venting practices, records show.

As you might expect, this prompted a Statement from West Fertilizer Co. regarding lawsuits:

Daniel Keeney, spokesperson for West
Fertilizer Co. today issued the following statement in response to
questions related to lawsuits related to last week's tragic fire and
explosion:

"We decline to comment on any pending litigation. Our focus
remains on the fact finding. We continue to do everything we can to
understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again
in any community. To that end, the owners and staff of West Fertilizer
Co. are working closely with investigating agencies. We have encouraged
all employees to assist in the fact finding to whatever degree
possible."

The first lawsuit has been filed. Texas Fertilizer Plant Owner Sued After Deadly Explosion.

The Sunlight Foundation has found that industry groups such as the
Agricultural Retailers Association, which represents suppliers of
fertilizers and pesticides, and the Fertilizer Institute have actively worked to weaken potential safety regulations. (h/t Think Progress).

WLJA ABC 7 reports, West Fertilizer Co. explosion damage to cost $100 million, group says:

An insurance industry trade group estimates losses from a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in a tiny Texas town will likely exceed $100
million.

Insurance Council of Texas spokesman Mark Hanna said
Wednesday that insured losses after the explosion in West, Texas,
included dozens of damaged homes, businesses and cars – as well as the
costs of resettling displaced residents.

Last week's explosion at West Fertilizer Co. left a crater 90 feet wide and totaled nearby homes and buildings [as many as 140 homes were destroyed].

This is the part of the story that I just do not get. Why was this town built around a fertilizer plant that stores highly explosive fertilizer, which is also a component in bomb making? Did they learn nothing from the Texas City disaster in 1947? Texas plant explosion: A deadly 1947 explosion in Texas City was also caused by ammonium nitrate.

Kos wrote the other day, The wonder of libertarian zoning laws, West, Texas edition:

[C]ompounding the carnage, it seems as if half the town was leveled
including several schools and houses five blocks from the plant. But
wait, there were houses five blocks from a fertilizer plant? There were actually houses across the street from this plant, and not just houses, but two of the town's three schools:

West-texas-map

Fertilizer is a well-known component of homemade bombs for a reason—it's extremely explosive. The thought that people would build homes around a fertilizer plant boggles the mind, the thought that they would build two schools directly adjacent to it is borderline criminal. What if that explosion had occurred during school hours? It's not as if they didn't know of the potential danger:

Two months ago, students at the intermediate school were
evacuated after school officials noticed a controlled brush burn near
the plant. They weren't informed about the burn, Crawford said, but the
evacuation went well and students and staff got out quickly.

The middle school suffered severe fire damage. An apartment building
adjacent the plant was completely leveled, killing about 15. See that
tan circle off the northwest corner of the plant? That was a playground. A nursing home was within the blast radius and was completely leveled. You can see many more pictures of the damage here.

There is a reason zoning laws exist. But Texas being Texas, apparently the "freedom" to set up shop next to a bomb trumps everything else—including the lives and properties of far too many in West.

The state of Texas maintains a state agency disaster relief fund to which you can contribute to a variety of needs. Office of the Governor Rick Perry: Disaster Center.  The Austin Disaster Relief Network has set up the West TX Disaster Fund. The Waco Foundation has also set up The West, Texas Disaster Relief Efforts Fund. There are several other organizations raising funds for the vicitims. Be careful of scammers.

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