It’s been awhile since we last covered the absolutely devastating 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Company (WFC) plant in Texas, which killed 12 emergency responders and three members of the public, and injured 260 more. This was “one of the most destructive incidents ever investigated by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) as measured by the loss of life among emergency responders and civilians; the many injuries sustained by people both inside and outside the facility fenceline; and the extensive damage to residences, schools, and other structures.”
But until now, no one really knew what caused the initial fire. The CSB couldn’t figure it out. Now, apparently, there's (kind of) an answer. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which interviewed more than 400 people, this must have been some sort of criminal act - basically because nothing else makes sense.
ATF Special Agent Robert Elder said the agency is offering a $50,000 reward to help find the person who committed the crime, which was determined to be deliberate after "we ruled out all accidental and natural causes." But he could not say why someone would have set the fire. "I think it's too early to speculate on murder charges," Elder added.
However, none of this should detract from the findings of the CSB, which released a report in January 2016, noting all the ways the tragedy could have been substantially minimized. (After the fire was reported, it took another 20 minutes for the plant to explode.) Incredibly, says the CSB, “19 other Texas facilities storing more than 10,000 pounds of [Fertilizer Grade Ammonium Nitrate or] FGAN are located within 0.5 miles of a school, hospital, or nursing home, raising concerns that an incident with offsite consequences of this magnitude could happen again.” Here are just a few things the CSB found:
- "[T]he construction of the bins and other building materials as well as the lack of an automatic sprinkler system plausibly contributed to the detonation."
- "[There were] inherently safer approaches to FGAN use and storage that reduce the risk of an FGAN detonation."
- "The West Volunteer Fire Department did not conduct pre-incident planning or response training at WFC, was likely unaware of the potential for FGAN detonation, did not take recommended incident response actions at the fire scene, and did not have appropriate training in hazardous materials response."
- The company “was dropped by one insurer for failing to address safety concerns identified in loss control surveys” but the carrier “at the time of the incident did not appear to have conducted its own safety inspections of the facility.”
- There are “several shortcomings in federal and state regulations and standards that could reduce the risk of another incident of this type. These include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Explosives and Blasting Agents and Process Safety Management standards, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Program and Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and training provided or certified by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection and the State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas."
The New York Times has a disturbing front page story about Texas’ reaction to the horrific April 17 West Fertilizer plant explosion that killed at least 14 and injured about 200 (and was insured for only $1 million dollars thanks to incredibly poor insurance regulation in that state. ThePopTort is better insured than that.)
In Texas, lawmakers like Governor Rick Perry and even the town’s mayor see no need for any improved safety laws. None. Not even fire codes, which are often banned in Texas!
Next week, an injury trial is set to begin against several defendants including companies that “either manufactured or sold fertilizer to West Fertilizer Co.” as well as "Adair Grain Co., owner of West Fertilizer Co.” Notably, “Previous trial settings — the first in October, the second in January — were canceled after the parties reached undisclosed settlements and partial settlements.”
Let’s hope justice is just around the corner for these victims.