West Plant Explosion
12:44 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

What's Been Done to Prevent Another West?

WBUR's "Here and Now" aired this story today. See more here.

From StateImpact Texas: 

WEST, TX - Trucks and bulldozers are still working here, the site of an explosion a year ago today. A deadly blast tore through this small community, killing fifteen and injuring hundreds. Homes and schools were destroyed, with the damage estimated to be over a hundred million dollars. 

There's a lone charred tree that still stands at the location of the blast, but other than that, the site is mostly empty. Crosses and memorials that read "West Strong" and "West is the Best" line the road.

The explosion at the West fertilizer plant was one of the worst industrial disasters in Texas history. So what's Texas doing to prevent it from happening again?

"Well, technically, nothing has been done," says state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Pickett says since West happened near the end of the legislative session, he didn't want to rush in any "knee-jerk" rules or regulations.

The state is making an effort to get more timely and accurate information from fertilizer facilities in Texas about how much ammonium nitrate they have. That chemical was the culprit in the blast (investigators are still trying to determine what caused the small fire that ignited the ammonium nitrate). Ammonium nitrate was also behind the Texas City disaster of 1947 that killed hundreds, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that killed 168.

"We're slow learners, I guess," says Tommy Muska, mayor of West. "History shows us ammonium nitrate is a dangerous product." 

It's clear from investigations and hearings since the disaster that there's a simple way to prevent West from happening again: start with preventing fires that could lead to explosions. Muska says that would've made the difference in his town.

"Well, if a sprinkler was there, we wouldn't be talking today," Muska says. "Because that little fire would've been doused by the sprinkler heads."

But, under state law, many Texas counties are restricted from having a fire code requiring sprinklers unless they have 250,000 people or are adjacent to a county of that size. Many of the older fertilizer facilities are in those rural counties, and efforts to pass a statewide fire code have been stifled.

"It's very difficult in Texas currently to do that," says Pickett. "There are people that live in those unincorporated areas for a reason. They want less regulation. And there's bills filed every session that don't seem to go anywhere."

The legislature had its third hearing on West earlier this week in Austin. It was there that State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said regulations can make a difference.

"Well, there's two choices," Connealy told the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. "If you want to keep ammonium nitrate in a combustible facility, you need to put fire sprinklers in there. An alternative that doesn't involve sprinklers, but still meets best practices, is to build a non-combustible storage bin for the ammonium nitrate."

The fire marshal is proposing a limited fire code, one that would only apply to ammonium nitrate facilities. His office has found 46 across Texas that are like the one in West. At the hearing, Connealy showed photo after photo of them. Huge piles of ammonium nitrate, like stockpiles of road salt, spilling out of wooden sheds and warehouses with no sprinklers.

But even Connealy – the state fire marshal – doesn’t have the authority to inspect those facilities. The owners had to voluntarily let him in. There were a few holdouts last year that refused, but they've since relented.

Pickett says he wants to propose narrow legislation that would change how ammonium nitrate is stored and give the state fire marshal inspection authority. But that could be a tough sell in a regulation-averse legislature.

One had only to hear the exchange at Monday's hearing between state Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton) and Fire Marshal Connealy to see that any new law could face an uphill battle. Flynn said he's worried, because he's been hearing from "old-timers" who don't want any changes to the law. After all, they've been working with ammonium nitrate for decades without it blowing up on them.

"We haven't had that many incidents. What's kept that from happening – luck?" Flynn asked Connealy.

"I would have to say yes, quite frankly," Connealy answered. "Two of the worst disasters in Texas history in industrial facilities involved ammonium nitrate."

“But it is a question that keeps coming up from a lot of folks," Flynn replied, "'Well, you're just gonna put us out of business. We're just gonna quit.'"

Rep. Pickett had a response to that sentiment. "You also used to drink, smoke and cuss, and you don't do any of those anymore."

"I gave it up," Flynn replied.

"Well, there you go," Pickett said. "So change might not be bad in some areas. I don't think what we're proposing at this point is that onerous."

West Mayor Muska agrees, saying new rules and regulations can strike a balance. Yes, they will come at a cost. But there's the cost of doing nothing to consider as well. "Look at our cost," Muska says. "Our cost was tremendous. 13 firemen, 15 total [killed]. I think it would be worth it. And I don't want another mayor in another town to go through what we just went through."State lawmakers could have some new rules proposed by this summer. If passed, when the legislature meets again next year, they’ll likely give fertilizer facilities a few more years to make any necessary improvement in fire safety. In the meantime, dozens of those plants could be another West just waiting to happen.