Thursday, May 12, 2016

West TX: Still What a Regulation-Free Universe Looks Like

Three years ago, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West TX leveled the building, destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, killed 15 (10 of whom were volunteer firefighters or other emergency responders trying to contain the disaster, and wounded hundreds.

A year later, the US Chemical Safety Board released preliminary findings, stating that the fire and explosion were entirely preventable, and that part of the responsibility for the death and destruction lay in the fact that there is no state fire code, and that "counties under a certain population are prohibited from having them."

Something like 50 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in wooden bins in a wooden warehouse that had no sprinkler system (ammonium nitrate was used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995). As New York Times reporter Manny Fernandez wrote then, "Federal investigators have determined that a lack of oversight and regulations at the local, state and federal levels contributed to the deadly fertilizer plant explosion that devastated ...(West TX)." (Fernandez' article, here)

And as I wrote at the time (full post, here): Ya think?!?

The full and final responsibility for the fire and explosion has gotten murkier, as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has just released the results of its investigation: the fire was deliberately set.

In an article in today's Times, Fernandez writes, "All accidental and natural fire possibilities were tested and eliminated..."

As a result, the case is now being pursued as a crime, and officials announced a reward of "up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible."

A senior ATF official was quoted as saying, "It required extensive scientific testing to determine the cause of this... We took our time because we knew we had to get this right. For a fire of this size, I wouldn't say this is unreasonable."

If the West TX disaster was a crime, how can I continue to say that "this is what a regulation-free universe looks like"?


The crime was as "successful" as it was because of lax regulation. Fernandez's story today reminded me that the explosion "left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep." Just think about that for a moment.

More than a quarter of the town's homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Fernandez also noted that "three schools, a nursing home and a 50-unit apartment complex were destroyed or heavily damaged."

A key contributing factor to the extent of the disaster? "The nearest cluster of houses was about 370 feet from the plant's property line and most of those injured were within 1,500 feet of the blast."

What does that say to you? To me, it says that the Chemical Safety Board was right: lax regulation and oversight. Who would allow houses to be built that close to a warehouse that stores a potential explosive? Who would allow a potential explosive to be stored in a warehouse with no sprinkler system? Who thinks no fire codes are a good idea?

None of these failures has been addressed.

Meanwhile, a civil suit against the West Fertilizer Company and the ammonium nitrate supplier, filed three years ago, is slowly wending its way through the justice system. The suit, according to a 2013 Waco Tribune article, seeks "unspecified damages".