Jim White at Emptyhead:
Who needs pesky safety regulations or zoning laws when there is money to made running a fertilizer plant? Sadly, the small Texas town of West, which is just north of Waco, is suffering the consequences of unregulated free enterprise today, as a massive explosion at West Fertilizer has leveled much of the town. Perhaps the only remotely fortunate aspect of this tragedy is that it occurred at 8 pm local time and so West Middle School, which burned after the explosion, was not full of children.
A look at the satellite image above shows the folly of putting “free enterprise” ahead of sensible zoning laws. At almost 20 miles north of Waco, Texas, one thing that is in abundance in the region is open space (I’ve driven past this spot several times in the last two or three years–it’s desolate), and yet this fertilizer plant is immediately adjacent to a large apartment building (see the photo at the top of this article for how that building fared in the explosion) and very close to a middle school. There is no reason at all for any other building to be within two or three miles of a facility that produces material that is so explosive.
The Texas tradition of low taxes is also having an impact on this tragedy. Note this passage in the New York Times account of the disaster:
It began with a smaller fire at the plant, West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, about 20 miles north of Waco that was attended by local volunteer firefighters, said United States Representative Bill Flores. “The fire spread and hit some of these tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer,” Mr. Flores said, “and there was an explosion which caused wide damage.”
That’s right. This fertilizer plant and other businesses in West apparently don’t pay enough in local taxes to support a municipal fire department, and so the first responders to a fire at a fertilizer plant were volunteer firefighters.
Hindsight is always 20/20. But how predictable was this tragedy?
According to Wikipedia the last census pegged the town of West as having 2807 residents. It is located in McClennan County not far north of Waco. Both a railroad line and an interstate highway run through West.
Adair Grain Incorporated operated a fertilizer mixing and storage facility in West. It was no secret and they had all the required permits. Among other things they stored anhydrous ammonia on the site. Anhydrous ammonia is used primarily as a fertilizer and an industrial refrigerant, but it is also used to produce methamphetamine. When mixed with nitric acid it makes ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate can both be explosive under certain conditions. But it is less flammable/explosive than propane or gasoline. Adair reportedly stored 54,000 pounds (27 short tons; 24 t) of anhydrous ammonia in West. To give you an idea how much that is, a railroad tank car holds about five times that much.
Remember I said that a railroad line and an interstate highway run through West? How do you think Anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate are transported? How about propane and gasoline? They all move by rail or by highways. There are lots of other chemicals traveling the same way, 24/7/365. Lots of trains, lots of trucks, lots of chemicals.
I don’t know about Texas but every one of those chemicals is regulated by the federal government. Those regulations include the proper handling, use, storage and transportation of the chemicals.
I am guessing that until yesterday the residents of West did not mind having a chemical plant on the edge of town. It provided jobs and its products served the local farming community. It would not surprise me to learn that the plant was operating at that location before the adjacent middle school and apartment building were built.
I am also guessing that Adair Grain Incorporated never expected the plant to blow up either. They are looking at some huge liability for deaths and injuries right now, but I bet the money issue is not the first thing on their minds.