UCC Mainstream Online

Fishy safety for Texas plant

Residents of a nursing home were evacuated due to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
Photo Provided by The Bay Area News Station / Flikr
Residents of a nursing home were evacuated due to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.

On April 17 at 7:50 p.m. a fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded killing 15 people and wounded 200 others. Twenty minutes before, a mysterious fire started at the plant which firefighters responded to but failed to contain. Citizens barely had enough time to escape the blast.

Seven different state and federal agencies that regulate fertilizer plants like the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas missed the danger of this plant. It hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985, according to the New York Times. Gosh, Inspector, for all your gadgets, you’re still dimwitted.

The owners also failed to tell the Department of Homeland Security that they had large quantities of potentially explosive fertilizer, as regulations require, and the most recent partial safety inspection of the plant by OSHA in 2011 led to $5,250 in fines for failing to draft a safety plan for pressurized canisters of anhydrous ammonia. This is absolutely ridiculous for agencies to miscount such a public hazard in a town of 2,800. The attitude seemed to be that such a small town was deemed too insignificant for further investigation. We don’t need more regulation; we do need more enforcement.

OSHA can regulate tool bags for dock workers, but they can’t find 270 tons of anhydrous ammonia? If 270 tons of fertilizer is hard to find in a 2,800 person town, try using your nose.

The plant didn’t even have sprinkler systems or structural fire barricades to limit fires.

The town itself is in fault for allowing a nursing home, an apartment complex, a middle school and five blocks of homes to be built near the plant knowing that the plant held the dangerous fertilizer ammonium nitrate. “The only reason why the city council decided to build so close is so they could get sewer and water in without building a bunch of new lines,” the Huffington Post reported.

Even though this was a fertilizer plant that exploded, not all fertilizer plants are susceptible to igniting like the one in Texas. Only two percent of fertilizer products actually have ammonium nitrate, according to Chemical and Engineering News, a publication produced by the American Chemical Association.

Nitrogen product has actually dropped by half since 2005, according to the Department of Agriculture. The product may become obsolete in the next five years if not sooner, according to Chemical and Engineering News.

There has been talk of lawsuits for damage to the town and also for the people who were injured by the blast. How will the owners and the company come out of this disaster?

In Oregon, there is one large fertilizer plant that uses ammonium nitrate just north of Columbia City, but it poses a much lower explosion hazard, fire fighters say, according to The Oregonian.

Although the fire is still being investigated, hopefully the answer about what caused the fire will come in the near future.