Fertilizer Plant Explosion Leaves Behind Many Unanswered Questions

Last week’s huge explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas killed 14 people and devastated a huge area. As a lengthy account in The New York Times earlier this week shows, it also raises serious questions about corporate responsibility, government oversight and the safety standards at dangerous facilities throughout the United States.

As the Times reports, the explosion at the plant “was so powerful it leveled homes and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.” The paper said the explosion appeared to have been more powerful than the 1995 bombing at the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Oklahoma blast provides a useful point of comparison because the bomb involved used the same chemical – ammonium nitrate – that was being manufactured and stored in the Texas plant.

The paper reports that while some state and local groups in both the private and public sectors received an annual report on ammonium nitrate and other chemicals being manufactured and stored in the plant others did not. The reporting requirements are designed to help local, state and federal authorities plan for exactly this sort of emergency, but the building’s owners apparently had not filed a report with the Department of Homeland Security. A federal law passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks mandates that “plants that use or store explosives or high-risk chemicals” file a federal report if they exceed certain limits. For ammonium nitrate a report is required if stocks exceed 400 pounds. According to the Times a 2012 report filed with the state listed the plant having 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate on hand.
As a result of this reporting negligence, the Times notes, “some of the volunteer firefighters and first responders who rushed to the scene appeared to have known that there were tons of dangerously combustible ammonium nitrate inside, but others did not.” Surely there can be no excuse for so large, and potentially vulnerable, a facility failing to take every required safety precaution. The result was that efforts to deal with the blast may have been hampered, possibly leading to wrongful deaths that could easily have been prevented. As an Oregon wrongful death attorney it pains me to think that this tragedy may have been made worse by casual attitudes toward safety at the plant itself, combined with a failure of governments at several levels to exercise their oversight duties.

As the newspaper reports, it remains unclear “who was aware of the chemical at the plant, and who was not, both at the site and in Washington.” This, in turn, highlights “the patchwork regulatory world the plant operated in and the ways in which it slipped through the bureaucratic cracks at the federal, state and local levels.” In particular, the paper notes that local decisions regarding the building of schools and homes were made, in part, on the basis of inadequate information about the plant and the potential danger it posed to the surrounding community. Laws designed to protect us all only work when they are enforced, preferably by responsible authorities before something goes wrong. Our courts exist, in part, to restore balance to the system when tragedy strikes and justice is needed, but it is far better for safety to be uppermost in everyone’s minds every day with the goal of not having to invoke the justice system after the fact.

New York Times: Texas fertilizer plant fell through regulatory cracks