Texas blast illustrates bigger risk

westblastBloomberg News
Darrell Preston

DALLAS — With two schools near a plant storing ammonium nitrate — the fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing — West Superintendent Marty Crawford said he had always worried about an explosion like the one that happened last week.

Crawford’s dilemma is echoed nationwide where land use near plants handling dangerous chemicals is controlled by a patchwork of federal and state regulations and zoning laws that are often more attuned to property owners’ rights than those who live and work near industrial sites.

“We crossed our fingers that that could never happen,” Crawford told reporters a day after the April 17 blast killed 14 people, wrecked two schools, destroyed a nursing home and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

Though only 2,800 people live in West, a rural town 80 miles south of Dallas, millions of people nationwide live and work near high-risk chemical plants, according to a report this year based on Congressional Research Service data. The report said 89 chemical facilities put more than 1 million nearby residents at risk, including 33 in Texas.

Following the explosion in West, which also injured 200 people and flattened 50 homes, thousands of similar fertilizer centers around the U.S. will get more scrutiny of hazardous chemicals from local residents and government officials, said Chris Damas, an independent fertilizer analyst with Barrie, Ontario-based BCMI Research.

“It looks like regulators dropped the ball,” said Damas. “People may forget this terrible accident and necessary improvements in fertilizer storage regulation won’t happen.”

Texas environmental groups, including Public Citizen Texas and Texas Campaign for the Environment, said in a April 24 statement that state lawmakers should pass tougher regulation and step up enforcement, including more inspections and disclosure of toxic threats.

Any increase in scrutiny would come as the fertilizer industry plans $22 billion of new projects and expansions in Texas and elsewhere in North America. The Texas economy is booming as it reaps the benefits of cheaper natural gas supplies from the hydraulic fracturing of shale rock formations. Gas is used as a raw material to make nitrogen-based fertilizer.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said in a Monday interview that there hadn’t been any violations at the West plant since 2006 and that recent inspections hadn’t found any “abnormalities that would cause concern.” Calls for change are “premature” until investigations of the cause are complete, he said.

Cities have grown up around manufacturing all over the country, said Perry, who questioned whether it would be cost-effective to move plants or residential areas away from each other. West had expanded into the rural area where the fertilizer plant was already established.

The facility, owned by closely held Adair Grain, was built in the 1960s, according to the governor. The plant wasn’t incorporated into the city and remained in McLennan County, where Texas zoning laws are weaker.

“Are the people willing to pay the cost?” Perry said. “Cost versus benefit is always what we battle with.”

After touring the damage last week, Perry, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott all said changes were needed to prevent future explosions near residences and schools.

“By the grace of God, this was at night” when children weren’t in school, Perry said. “How there were only 14 people who lost their lives is a bit of an amazement.”

Government officials have been slow to change zoning and other land use laws and federal regulations that could prevent dangerous chemical facilities from being built near schools and residential areas, said Kelly Haragan, environmental clinic director at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.

“These patterns take a long time to change,” said Haragan, who has worked for advocates of buffer zones separating industrial sites from residential areas. “In some cases the companies were there first.”

Texas, in its effort to support local business and lure more companies to the state, has been reluctant to add to regulatory burdens on industry, Perry said.

“We are a state that does not believe in overburdening businesses,” Perry said.

Lawmakers in Texas, the biggest energy-producing state in the union, began their biennial legislative session in January with a surplus estimated at about $8.8 billion as the booming energy industry helped state revenue to top projections.

The Adair Grain plant stored ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material responsible for industrial accidents and used in terrorist attacks. The solid fertilizer was used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building and kill 168 people in Oklahoma City 18 years ago.

The owners and employees of Adair Grain and its West Fertilizer Co. unit are working with investigators, the company said in a statement two days after the explosion. The cause of the blast and the fire that preceded it still hasn’t been determined.

The plant held 270 tons of ammonium nitrate as of Dec. 31, according to a report from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“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. “We’re all for creating jobs and good conditions for business, but it shouldn’t cost you your life.”

The crater in West was smaller than the one left by a bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995, said Brian Hoback, an ATF supervisor who investigated the Oklahoma City bombing. Still, the damage had an impact on Perry and other state officials.

“This is the stuff used to make fertilizer bombs,” said Cornyn, after his tour. Local, state and federal laws needed to be looked at for possible changes, he said.

“The question is whether you should be storing it this close to schools, nursing homes and residential areas.”