Five years ago tonight a fire broke out at the West Fertilizer company in West, Texas. Emergency responders rushed toward the facility which contained 40 to 60 tons of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate, but twenty minutes later a massive explosion ripped through the building killing 12 responders and three others, injuring 252 and damaging or destroying 500 buildings. A 22-unit apartment complex and a 145-bed nursing home across the street were destroyed. Two of the victims who died lived at the apartment complex and another lived at the nursing home.
Much of the town has been rebuilt, but the emotional scars remain:
The disaster displaced hundreds of people and left many others injured or bereaved, and its emotional toll continues. In the first couple of years after the explosion, five suicides were connected to the aftermath of the incident, said Jim Ellor, a Baylor University social work professor who has volunteered to provide counseling in West over the last five years. He said long-term stress has continued around the community. “There is always a sense of, if I live in West and there’s a fire, I won’t go to my picture window to watch it,” he said. “It hits so deeply, the new normal is to still have some scars from it.”
What are some of the lessons learned — and not learned from the explosion?
1. Don’t Let a Good Catastrophe Go to Waste: It sounds cynical, but the fact is that all-too-often, progress is made in this country only as the result of a disaster that brings to the surface policy failures that should have been corrected long before. The West explosion, along with several other smaller chemical plant incidents in the months before, led President Obama to issue Executive Order 13650, “Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security” which called for additional measures to be taken by government agencies to further improve chemical facility safety and security. Among the specifics that came out of the Executive Order were efforts by OSHA, EPA and the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate their efforts and to modernize regulations that protect workers and the public from explosions and uncontrolled releases.
2. Corollary — Protections Delayed are Protections Denied: This is actually a corollary to lesson 1 above. EPA and OSHA immediately set out to improve their protective regulations. EPA’s modernized Risk Management Program rule was issued in the waning days of the Obama administration and has met the anti-regulatory meat cleaver of Scott Pruitt (see below). OSHA, whose regulatory process is much slower than EPA’s was hard at work on modernizing its Process Safety Management Standard (PSM), although it has been Missing in Action since the start of the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, the Executive Order also called on OSHA to fix its flawed PSM “retail exemption.” After the West Fertilizer explosion, OSHA discovered that the facility was not covered by OSHA’s Process Safety Management and had therefore not been inspected since the mid-1980s. The reason was the little known “retail exemption” that categorized the fertilizer facility as a retail establishment, exempted from the PSM standard, despite the thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate and ammonia it contained. OSHA set out to fix the flawed definition of a retail establishment, but the Agricultural Retailers Association successfully lobbied Congress to stop OSHA from regulating such establishments, and the Court later said that OSHA had to go through full rulemaking to make the change.
The problem was that it had taken OSHA over two years to make the change to the retail exemption, by which time the impact of the West disaster had largely faded from memory, along with the urgency to make the necessary changes to ensure that flawed policies like the retail exemption didn’t lead to similar future catastrophes.
3. Beware of Negative Corpus (and agencies bearing false methodologies): In May 2016, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) shocked the country by announcing that they had determined that the fire that led to the explosion was a criminal act and that they believed that someone had deliberately set the fertilizer plant on fire. The agency also offered “a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the fire and subsequent explosion” Unfortunately, absent any actual evidence, the ATF used the discredited method of “negative corpus” to reach that conclusion. Negative corpus is defined as “The process of determining the ignition source for a fire, by eliminating all ignition sources found, known, or believed to have been present in the area of origin, and then claiming such methodology is proof of an ignition source for which there is no supporting evidence of its existence.” In other words, process of elimination. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has declared “negative corpus” to be a violation of scientific method. (I have written about this problem here, here and here.)
4. Elections have Consequences: Fast forward to the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and then to June 2017 when Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced a two-year delay in implementation of the updated Risk Management Program. The delay came in response to petitions from the chemical industry to weaken or repeal the rule, but Pruitt’s used the ATF’s faulty findings as justification for reconsideration. According to Pruitt, the delay was needed “to allow the agency to conduct a reconsideration proceeding and to consider other issues that may benefit from additional comment.” The new rule, issued in the last days of the Obama administration, had significantly improved communication between facilities and emergency responders, clarified information that emergency responders need to safely respond to incidents, required root cause analyses of chemical plant incidents and near misses, and required chemical facilities to consider “inherently safer” chemicals and production processes.
5. Check Out Your Neighbors
The West facility was built in 1961 and opened for business in 1962 in the middle of a field, far from homes or buildings. But over the years, schools, homes and apartments were built near the plant. A park was constructed less than 150 feet from the fertilizer facility. And West is not alone. The Chemical Safety Board in its West report found that of the 40 fertilizer facilities in Texas as of October 2015, almost half were within a half mile of a school, nursing home, or hospital, while 8 out of 10 were within a quarter mile of a home. Neither the federal government nor the state of Texas have regulations relating to siting facilities that store and distribute ammonium nitrate fertilizer near communities such as West.
6. Those Who Ignore the History of Chemical Disasters are Doomed to Kill More People: It’s only a matter of time.
My piece on the 4th Anniversary can be found here.
Morris Bridges Jr., 41, a fire sprinkler technician for Action Fire Pro in Waxahachie and a member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
Perry Calvin, 37, a student at Hill College Fire Academy and a member of Mertens and Navarro Mills volunteer fire departments.
Jerry Chapman, 26, a member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department and in training to become an emergency medical technician.
Cody Dragoo, 50, a foreman at West Fertilizer Co. and a member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
Kenneth “Luckey” Harris Jr., 52, a Dallas Fire-Rescue captain and owner of Harris Home Inspections and Construction.
Adolph Lander, 96, a resident of West Rest Haven Nursing Home who died the day after the explosion. His death is attributed to trauma from the blast.
Jimmy Matus, 52, owner of Westex Welding and a member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
Judith Monroe, 65, a native of Sinton, Texas, moved to West in 2001. She was in the apartment complex adjacent to the West Fertilizer Co. plant when it exploded.
Joey Pustejovsky Jr., 29, secretary for the city of West and a volunteer firefighter. His parents and son have spearheaded a project to rebuild the town park complete with a memorial to those lost in the blast.
Cyrus Reed, 29, a member of Abbott Volunteer Fire Department. He was completing his last night of EMT basic training when he went to assist at the plant fire.
Mariano C. Saldivar, 57, a native of Mexico, lived in an apartment complex adjacent to the fertilizer plant. Saldivar retired to West after working for years in the warehousing industry in California.
Kevin Sanders, 33, a member of Bruceville-Eddy Volunteer Fire Department, was taking an EMT class when he went to assist at the plant fire.
Doug Snokhous, 50, a Central Texas Iron Works employee and a member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
Robert Snokhous, 48, a Central Texas Iron Works employee and a member of West Volunteer Fire Department.
William “Buck” Uptmor Jr., 45, owner of fence-building company Uptmor Welding and Construction.