West Fertilizer

Like certain politicians, some government agencies just have no shame.

Despite widespread condemnation by fire investigation experts and the citizens of West, Texas, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) issued a reminder yesterday that they still consider the fire that caused the catastrophic 2013 West Fertilizer explosion to be the result of arson.

I have written numerous times (here and here) about ATF’s unscientific finding, announced at a hastily convened press conference on May 11, 2016, that the fire that led to the ammonium nitrate explosion was deliberately set.  The agency also offered a $50,000 reward “for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the fire and subsequent explosion.”

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas.

Reporters have focused previously on the ATF’s dubious finding (here, here and here.)  And yesterday, CBS News in Texas ran a story (with videos) about continuing skepticism about the ATF’s finding, as well as how the ATF’s conclusion handed the Trump administration a convenient excuse to roll back Obama era regulations that strengthened chemical plant security.

The ATF has never actually claimed to have any evidence of arson; they just couldn’t find any other causes.

No Evidence of Arson

As I have explained numerous times before, the ATF has never actually claimed to have any evidence of arson; they just couldn’t find any other cause — such as a burning cigarette, an electrical problem, or a backfiring engine. So, through process of elimination — a process known as “negative corpus” —  they concluded that the cause must be arson.

The first problem the ATF finding  is that the nation’s leading fire protection and investigation associations believe negative corpus is a deeply flawed process.  The National Fire Protection Association, in its guidance on fire investigations, states 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.”

And the National Association of Fire Investigators advises against the use of the method – warning “if used inappropriately it could lead to erroneous conclusions.”

The second problem is that the fire — whatever caused it — wasn’t the most important problem at West. As I’ve described before

Ammonium nitrate (AN) doesn’t just blow up by itself, or even if exposed to a small fire.  The best theory for the West explosion was a combination of high heat from a large, out-of-control fire that had liquefied the AN which was contaminated with nearby seeds, soot from the fire or other contaminants.  Fires may be difficult to prevent completely, but storage of AN in metal bins, or concrete (non-combustible)​ bins and buildings​, away from contaminants (like seeds),  along with ​ with sprinklers to control a fire, minimizes the chance that a fire​​ (however ignited) in the vicinity of AN will turn into an explosion.

And that’s exactly why​ what initiated the fire doesn’t matter. Fires happen. You want to prevent them and control as many ignition sources as possible, but the main concern is ensuring that ignition of a fire doesn’t lead to a catastrophic explosion, and that’s where good ​design practices and safety procedures come in.  If ammonium nitrate is properly stored and handled, you don’t have to worry as much about fires and  ignition sources. If the mice chew through an electrical wire, if the Boy Scouts hold an illegal cookout, or if a rogue ISIS wannabe tosses in a Molotov cocktail, the facility may start to burn, but no catastrophic explosion will occur because the AN is stored properly and measures are in place to control the fire.

A Frozen Cold Case

So today America’s coldest cold case remains just as frozen as the day it was issued while the $50,000 reward remains uncollected, 7 years later.

You’d think at this point, the ATF would just want to slink into a dark corner and hope everyone just forgets about their most embarrassing moment.

But no.  As I said before, these guys have no shame.

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