Environmental Law

Fatal fertilizer plant blast a 'nightmare scenario'; Texas plant told EPA explosion could not occur

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An explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant Wednesday night could be heard at least 45 miles away, causing massive damage and killing and injuring an unknown number of people in and around the small farming town of West. Officials estimate that up to 15 people have been killed, although a local emergency services director says the death toll could be much higher, and another 160 people, at last report, had been taken to local hospitals.

As responders search for survivors at the smoldering site, hampered by conditions including unstable, severely damaged buildings and the possibility that another tank of fertilizer could also explode, observers are already looking at environmental, workplace safety and zoning laws and wondering why they didn’t do a better job of preventing the carnage. The plant reportedly told the Environmental Protection Agency in a routine emergency planning document that there was no risk of fire or explosion, only a possible ammonia gas leak that wouldn’t cause any deaths or serious injuries.

The Associated Press, CNN, the Dallas Morning News and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) all have detailed stories. The Washington Post has both an article and a photo gallery.

Dr. George Smith, who serves as emergency medical services director of West, told KWTX that six firefighters and two paramedics had been confirmed dead and estimated that the total death toll from the explosion could be 60 to 70 people.

While there is no indication, at this point, that the explosion is anything other than an industrial accident, officials have not ruled out other causes and will be conducting a criminal probe, in addition to workplace investigations by the Chemical Safety Board and other agencies.

The station said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will investigate the fire. The deaths will be investigated by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office.

The debacle at the West Fertilizer Co. began yesterday with a fire at about 6 p.m. to which volunteer firefighters responded. Roughly two hours later, an explosion occurred, with the force as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale, the Wall Street Journal recounted.

Several firefighters remain missing in the aftermath of the blast, which leveled a four-block area around the plant and rained burning embers and debris down on residents of the town, about 20 miles north of Waco and 80 miles south of Dallas, according to the AP.

In a televised briefing to reporters soon after midnight, a spokesman with the Texas Department of Safety said the explosion caused “a tremendous number of injuries” and severely damaged 50 to 75 homes, in addition to tearing the facade off of a 50-unit apartment building and severely damaging a school and a nursing home, according to the WSJ article.

The spokesman, D.L. Wilson also said the plant and surrounding neighborhood looked “just like Iraq, just like the Murrah building,” referring to the 1995 fertilizer truck bomb attack by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

Gov. Rick Perry held a news conference at around noon on Thursday, the Morning News reported.

“Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community,” Perry said. “This tragedy has most likely hit every family and touched practically everyone in that town.”

An earlier Dallas Morning News article took note of a routine emergency planning report sent by the fertilizer plant to the Environmental Protection Agency, which requires facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals to provide such documentation, as CNN pointed out.

The emergency planning report said there was no risk of fire or explosion at the plant, and described a possible 10-minute ammonia gas release—which wouldn’t kill or injure anyone—as a worst-case scenario.

The fertilizer manufactured by the West plant for agricultural use is similar to the fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing, chemistry professor Neil Donahue of Carnegie Mellon University told the AP.

Although it is a stable compound, it can explode when heated, he said. “The hotter it is, the faster the reaction will happen. That really happens almost instantaneously, and that’s what gives the tremendous force of the explosion.”

An evacuation had begun when the West explosion occurred yesterday, but some individuals were reportedly trapped by debris.

See also:

Dallas Morning News (opinion): “Explosion in West should make all towns question zoning decisions”

Slate: “West Fertilizer Co. Told the EPA That Last Night’s Explosion Could Never Happen”

Wonkblog (Washington Post): “The Texas fertilizer plant explosion is horrific. But how common is this?”

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