20/20 Hindsight

Jim White at Emptyhead:

John Galt Kills Texans in Massive Fertilizer Plant Explosion

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.

Anhydrous Ammonia storage tanks

Anhydrous Ammonia storage tanks

About Myiq2xu - BA, JD, FJB

I was born and raised in a different country - America. I don't know what this place is.
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26 Responses to 20/20 Hindsight

  1. myiq2xu says:

    Re-reading this it makes me sound kinda callous. FTR: I am horrified and my heart goes out to the victims.

    • Falstaff says:

      Nothing callous about it. Shit happens, as they say. If we were to regulate everything so as to drive risk down to near zero, nothing would ge done and life would suck got everybody. It’s horrible for the survivors and the families of the dead, but it wasn’t an intentional act of destruction.

  2. myiq2xu says:

    Now he’s just trolling:

  3. HELENK says:

    the ATF is going there to investigate the incident. No one knows what caused it yet. There are plants with hazardous material in practically every town in the country and they employ people who live close to work.

    if people knew what freight trains carried through their towns every day they would have nightmares.

    • myiq2xu says:

      A CHP officer said the same thing about trucks.

      • HELENK says:

        he is right.

      • HELENK says:

        true story
        the tower operator at Media tower on the West Chester line came running out of the tower one day and when someone asked him why, he replied ” Koban is coming through with a coal train.” I knew this engineer and he was one of the really good ones that you would give railroad to because you knew he would get the train through and not hold up other trains. But he did move a train fast, never over the speed limit.

  4. myiq2xu says:

    Rich Lowery:

    What was so extraordinary about the president’s performance yesterday is that this is the version of himself he’s always tried to keep under wraps. He made his career on sounding reasonable, positioning himself as the middle between two extremes, pretending to afford respect for the arguments of his opponents, and never, ever showing anger. You always knew this was all a pose, but he never fully let loose until yesterday when he vented his rage at and his contempt for his opponents, and after a defeat in the most traditional of all liberal causes, gun control. It’s amazing how he believes that everyone else in Washington engages in politics except for him, even though the way he reacted after Newtown was textbook political exploitation of a tragedy–using the victims and their families to the maximum extent possible and pursuing policy goals that he’d always favored but that wouldn’t have prevented the shooting. In his own mind, he’s the brave and sincere one, and everyone opposed to him is an insincere coward. We already knew all of this about him, but it was revealing all the same.

    • HELENK says:

      last night when I was reading about the Texas blast, one comment was tell obama not to come. We do not need him to use us for photo ops.
      now that is a pretty sad statement to make about an US president

    • myiq2xu says:

      It might have been a BLEVE:

      Typically, anhydrous ammonia, a gas, is stored in tanks with relief valves so that as hot weather heats the gas and it expands, the valves vent some of the gas to prevent it from bursting its tank, explains Matt Pearson, fertilizer containment and certification specialist with the Office of Indiana State Chemist & Seed Commissioner, based at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

      The explosion could have occurred in part as heat from the fire caused the gas to expand far faster than relief valves could vent it. Direct ignition of the gas is unlikely, Mr. Pearson suggests, because the gas burns only at very high temperatures – about 1,200 degrees F.

      BLEVE = Boiling Liquid, Expanding Vapor Explosion

      It’s what happens to propane tanks in fires. The pressure builds until the tank gets so hot the metal gives way, then the gas expands and ignites at the same time.

      Watch this video and you’ll never look at a propane tank the same way again:

  5. lyn5 says:

    Volunteer fire departments are the status quo in rural America. Volunteers take their jobs seriously and train whenever they can. It has nothing to do with not having enough tax money.

    • myiq2xu says:

      Yep. The government buys the equipment and (hopefully) pays for the training. But the firemen are volunteers. It also doesn’t make sense in some places to pay for a full-time FD that only fights a few fires a year.

    • HELENK says:

      volunteer fireman deserve a lot of respect. They too run to danger and not away from it and they are not paid to do so.

      • lyn5 says:

        Volunteer firefighters are farmers, ranchers, teachers, engineers, business owners–to name a few. They are the community. I attended a training session where the volunteer firemen sprayed water on an anhydrous ammonia vapor leak. It is nasty stuff–sucks the moisture out of the air and your lungs. We all ran when the wind shifted the vapor into us. I also saw them fight alongside the professionals during a huge fire in the Bear Paw Mountains in north-central Montana. I have the utmost respect for these volunteers.

  6. Lulu says:

    This plant is in a very small farming town. There is very little tax base to tax. What exactly does Mr White propose they tax? The Medicaid patients in the nursing home. Or maybe the folks in the apartment complex who cannot afford to buy a home? That plant probably paid the majority of the taxes that provided revenue to operate the town. Waco is twenty miles away. Maybe he cannot understand people who volunteer their time to put out fires for neighbors without pay but that is standard in rural and small town Texas. He might benefit from doing for others rather than just telling them how to do things of which he has no idea about what he is speaking.

  7. yttik22 says:

    It’s illogical to automatically accuse this plant of putting profit before safety in light of the fact that this tragedy is probably going to be extremely costly. We also don’t know what caused the fire yet.

  8. myiq2xu says:
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  12. DandyTiger says:

    Shit seems to be hitting the fan.

  13. driguana says:

    Just Google Mapped the Adair site and it actually appears that part of the plant is in the incorporated boundaries of West, TX but that part of it, perhaps the part that exploded, is in McClennan County. My guess would be that County regulations are less restrictive than city ones.

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