Immediately after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, before any political motivation was alleged, the word terrorism began to be used by the news media. It was said that no stone would be left unturned in the hunt for the perpetrators.
Then two days later, on April 17, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in a Texas town called West left 2,800 people feeling terrorized. At least 14 residents were killed and hundreds injured. Some are still in intensive care. Homes, schools and a nursing home were destroyed.
But no one was saying that those responsible for the explosion, which obliterated much of the small farming town, would be found at any cost.
It is known that the West Fertilizer Co. stockpiled huge amounts of potentially explosive material, but U.S. and Texas governmental agencies formed to regulate fertilizer plants have seen their budgets drastically cut. While the Pentagon budget spirals upward in the interest of U.S. imperialism, it had been nearly three decades since the West Fertilizer Co. was last inspected by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. As far back as 1985, it was fined for violating regulations on how to store ammonia.
The fine was $30.
A day after the explosion in West, the Government Accountability Office released a new report documenting a widespread lack of workplace inspections by state OSHA programs. After surveying 22 state-run programs, it found that the agencies had problems with hiring and retaining inspectors, in part due to low pay.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already stated its opposition to efforts to strengthen workplace safety regulations.
The town of West is about 75 miles south of Dallas and 120 miles north of Austin. The town’s chamber of commerce touts it as “the Czech point of central Texas.”
Czech immigrants arrived there in the 1880s and the community still maintains strong ties to its Central European roots, with businesses named “Little Czech Bakery” and “The Czech Inn.”
West residents are now preparing to bury their dead and planning to clear the rubble and rebuild. Their middle and high school students are being transported to nearby Waco to attend school.
The owner of West Fertilizer Co., Donald R. Adair, 83, has not been arrested for failing to comply with the law. The plant, which is a warehouse for nitrogenous fertilizers sold to nearby farmers, has eight employees and reported annual sales of $4 million in 2012.
Texas newspapers are reporting that the company opened in 1962, but never obtained any permits until 2006, after a nearby resident complained of a strong ammonia odor.
Neighbors of the plant had repeatedly called state authorities with complaints of leaks, the odor of ammonia and concerns about a nearby nursing home and middle school. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality files show that complaints to the agency date back to 1987, when a couple called to say their child was being sickened by ammonia fumes.
In 1991, a police officer on patrol received a phone call about fumes and found ammonia leaking into the air at a rapid rate. He couldn’t reach anyone at the plant, so he decided to turn off the ammonia valve himself. He was severely burned and later filed a lawsuit against the company.
In June of 1992, a 6,000-gallon ammonia tank was constructed without a permit. In 1996, the Waco Regional Office of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission received numerous calls from residents concerning the smell of ammonia, but officials said they smelled nothing. The company suggested the odor was from a sewer line at the nursing home.
In August of 1997, a neighbor called five times to complain of strong ammonia odors. In 1999, more complaints were filed and state inspectors went out but said they didn’t smell anything. According to notes in state records, the owner said, “We do everything we can to prevent leaks and to be a good neighbor.”
In 2006, West Fertilizer was out of compliance with both state and federal requirements and the Environmental Protection Agency fined them $2,300 for not filing a sufficient risk management plan as required for all companies that store hazardous materials.
In its June 2011 risk management plan, the company reported it was storing 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia but downplayed the risks, saying, “The worst-case release scenario would be the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes.” In the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh used just 2,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, which is made from anhydrous ammonia.
In 2012, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued citations when tanks were found lacking the special placards emergency responders rely on to know exactly what is inside cargo containers. Other signs were illegible. Also, inspectors found large quantities of anhydrous ammonia stored in “unauthorized” tanks that failed to meet safety standards. The company was unable to produce a copy of its security plan.
In June of 2012, a $10,100 fine was reduced after West Fertilizer took corrective measures.
In the coming days and weeks, these recent violations could prove relevant to the investigation into the causes of the explosion.
Whatever caused the fire that led to the explosion, the people of West will take years and perhaps a generation to recover from the physical and psychological scars left by the West Fertilizer Co.