Doubt Grows Concerning ATF Conclusion that West Fertilizer Fire was Deliberately Set

West Fertilizer ATF HeadlinesSometimes blogging is like shouting into the wind. All you hear are echos of your own voice. Then silence. But, then sometimes you actually get a response.

I’ve felt like I’ve been shouting into the wind for months, ranting about the evidence-challenged ATF statement over a year ago that the 2013 fire at West Fertilizer that led to the catastrophic ammonium nitrate explosion, was deliberately set. The ATF (as I’ve written here and here) had no evidence of arson, but had used a theory called “negative corpus” — where they couldn’t find any other causes, they decided that the cause of the fire must therefore be arson. Fire prevention experts have stated that negative corpus is not a legitimate way to determine the causation of fires.

Aside from just being wrong, the ATF allegation has provided a reason for EPA to start rolling back regulations that would protect workers, emergency responders and communities from chemical incidents, and delayed victims’ lawsuits against the fertilizer company.

But all of my seemingly futile shouting into the wind seems to finally be changing now with two articles by Mark Collette in the Houston Chronicle (here and here) and an article by Tommy Witherspoon in the Waco Tribune Herald, all of which rely heavily on my previous posts.

Collette confirms that the National Fire Protection Association, in its guidance on fire investigations, believes “The negative corpus process is not consistent with the scientific method, is inappropriate, and should not be used because it generates untestable hypotheses, and may result in incorrect determinations of the ignition source and first fuel ignited.”  And he rightly points out that

How the fire started has nothing to do with why the plant exploded.

As the U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted in its exhaustive report, a fire of any source was a problem at the plant because the ammonium nitrate fertilizer was stored in flammable wooden bins, and was likely adulterated in a way that made it more prone to detonate. Likewise, the source of ignition was unrelated to the problems emergency responders had: lack of training and communication, and a dearth of knowledge about the materials stored at the plant. Not to mention that the town had grown too close to the plant to withstand a fiery blast of any cause.

And the town of West didn’t appreciate the ATF’s conclusions either, as Witherspoon writes:

West Mayor Tommy Muska also finds fault with the ATF ruling, adding he felt snubbed after ATF officials didn’t notify him about the press conference that was held in West about the fire and explosion that decimated his hometown.

“That is not the way you investigate something. I would agree with (Barab), yes,” Muska said. “You rule out this and rule out that, and it is automatically something else? That doesn’t make any sense to anybody. They are grasping at straws for some reason, and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of the ATF since that big press conference.”

The ATF, which had gone silent following their May 2016 announcement — stating that any further comment would compromise a criminal case — has finally responded. The  ATF finally emailed the Chronicle yesterday, stating that:

“All reasonable accidental and natural fire scenarios were hypothesized, considered, tested and eliminated as being fire causes,” ATF Special Agent Nicole Strong said in an email Tuesday, in an echo of comments the ATF made a year ago. “The only hypothesis that could not be eliminated was that the fire was incendiary. This means it was intentionally set. This conclusion was confirmed by extensive testing.”

In other words, they admit that they used “negative corpus.”

And Strong elaborated further with the Waco Tribune:

“Using the National Fire Protection Association’s Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation, all reasonable accidental and natural fire scenarios were hypothesized, considered, tested and eliminated as being fire causes. The only hypothesis that could not be eliminated was that the fire was incendiary. This means it was intentionally set. This conclusion was confirmed by extensive testing,”

Well, no, actually the inability to identify other causes does not mean the fire was intentionally set, and the NFPA says that “The negative corpus process is not consistent with the scientific method, is inappropriate, and should not be used because it generates untestable hypotheses, and may result in incorrect determinations of the ignition source and first fuel ignited.”

So what happens now? Who knows? The best outcome would be for ATF to admit their error and withdraw their conclusion that the fire was intentionally set.  Even better would be if EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, realizing that his decision to delay and “reconsider” EPA’s new Risk Management Program rule was based on a false premise, decides to reconsider his reconsideration.

And someone please let me know when they see pigs flying….

Environmental Protection Agency Jordan Barab West Fertilizer Explosion

3 Comments

  1. The insisting of attempting to identify an imaginary arsonist in the WEST explosion–that leveled half the town of West and killed almost a dozen workers and community members serves only one purpose: to stop any preventive actions to avoid the next Amonium Nitrate explosion.
    The ATF claims –that their investigation “extensive testing” “confirmed” the existence that the fire was intentionally set –demands a scientific and legal re-examination. As of now–and as you pointed out — their unsubstantiated claim has served the purpose of stopping any attempt to learn from this catastrophe to would allow enact the minimal regulations to protect other Texas and U.S. communities

  2. This is the same argument Creationists use to show the existence of God. If they find something that science can’t explain (yet) they say it is proof there is a god.

    It works for them too.

  3. Corrected version of my comment:

    Jordan:
    The insisting of attempting to identify an imaginary arsonist in the WEST catastrophe–that leveled half the town of West and killed almost a dozen workers and community members serves only one purpose: to stop any preventive actions to avoid the next Amonium Nitrate (AN) explosion.
    The ATF claims –that their investigation “extensive testing” “confirmed” the existence that the fire was intentionally set.
    Those claims demands scientific and legal re-examination. As of now–and as you pointed out — their unsubstantiated claim of “arson” has served the purpose of stopping any attempt to learn from this catastrophe. The implementation of the recommendations of real technical investigations (like the CSB Investigation) would have allowed to enact the minimal regulations to protect other Texas and U.S. communities.
    The ATF actions have stopped:
    1. Enacted of Fire Codes in Texas that protect communities like West
    2. Restructuring OSHA regulations on proper handling of Ammonium Nitrate (storage in non combustible containers)
    3. Improve the EPA RMP standard including defining AN as a “reactive” substance.

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