Another Explosion, This Time Unintentional, Does Comparable Damage in Texas

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You know how you’re not supposed to use water to put out certain kinds of fires?  Electrical fires, sure — but also some chemical fires, right?  You know one of the chemical fires you’re not supposed to put out with water?  That’s right, anhydrous ammoniathe substance that just last night blew up [which was found in] a fertilizer factory in West, Texas.  (West, Texas is not actually in West Texas, by the way; it’s 80 miles south of Dallas., 20 north of Waco.)

UPDATE 4/19: Ryan Cantor links to a site that says that anhydrous ammonia poses no fire risk and won’t explode.  My reporting is based on what was known when the story broke, including that there was unreported anhydrous ammonia on site, an assertion that there were no chemicals on site that could cause a fire or explosion, and an assertion that the substance could cause an explosion (as could anything that can cause a fire, depending on whether it’s next to something combustible.)  Today we learned that there was ammonium nitrate stored on site, which is at minimum a much more straightforward cause of an explosion and which aggravates the problems of lack of reporting and lack of monitoring discussed in the article, as well as explaining how the omission put firefighters at risk.  I’m leaving the photo as is, though.  Text added to keep sentences grammatical (after strikeouts) is in brackets.

UPDATE 4/20: Oy.  The West, Texas fertilizer plant where a powerful explosion killed at least 14 and injured dozens had 1,350 times the allowed amount of ammonium nitrate.

Fertilizer manufacture is a dangerous business; as Slate notes, the day before this explosion was

the 66th anniversary of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history: the Texas City disaster of 1947, a fertilizer explosion that killed more than 580 people when a French-flagged vessel hauling ammonium nitrate caught fire, resulting in a chain reaction of fires and explosions that destroyed much of the port city.

(Ammonia, water, and fertilizer — again!)

Now maybe you knew that about the extent of the explosive power [dangers] of anhydrous ammonia being facilitated by spraying water on it (thus warming it).  I expect that a lot of people don’t.  [I’m guessing that most people by now know about the dangers of ammonium nitrate.]  One of them that didn’t know it well enough was the person taking video of the fertilizer factory fire from what surely seemed like a safe distance.  (I’m not going to put the video here because the last part is upsetting.  Go watch it on Slate at that link above — and heed their warning.)  The first 29 seconds of the video are pretty much variations of the first image in the series below.  The last three images cover the next second or so.

Series of stills from video of West, Texas fertilizer fire.

Someone was supposed to know not to put out this particular fire with water, because it could cause one hellacious explosion. Someone dropped the ball. Who, how — and what could have been done about it?

Estimates as of a few hours after the blast were at least three dead (but probably many more), perhaps 200 injured, five blocks laid waste, 50-75 houses destroyed — and it registered on seismographs in Dallas as 2.1 on the Richter scale.  That’s pretty awful — except compared to what it will probably look like later today.  And of course it comes at a time when people in this country are pretty sensitized to the dangers of explosions.  So — what went wrong?

I bring this up here because one of the things we love to talk about here in the Orange County political blogosphere is the limited role of government.  This was indeed a failure of government — but it wasn’t a failure by government.  It was a failure caused by our having a government too strapped to investigate whether some of the people it regulates are lying to them — or, perhaps, merely omitting facts out of stupidity and ignorance.

Here’s something that the government is supposed to know — and I’ll bet that it does.  From the Dallas Morning News:

“Emergency responders should not mix water used for firefighting directly with anhydrous ammonia as this will result in warming of the product, causing the liquid to turn into a vapor cloud,” says the website of Calamco, a growers’ cooperative in California.  Explosive hazards with fertilizer are more commonly linked to ammonium nitrate, which is widely used both in agriculture and as an explosive in construction and mining. A mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil was used to make the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 18 years ago Friday.

One writer noted:

There is special protective equipment that firefighters must wear in the event of an ammonia accident, and here in Missouri, there are certain special emergency numbers that people must call. There are special techniques that firefighters must follow, like staying upwind of ammonia. Sadly, there is inadequate training for how to handle anhydrous ammonia.

So what was the problem?  Either of the above two links will take you to this:

The fertilizer plant that exploded Wednesday night in West, Texas, reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and local public safety officials that it presented no risk of fire or explosion, documents show.

West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.

But the report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated “no” under fire or explosive risks. The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.

The second worst possibility projected was a leak from a broken hose used to transfer the product, again causing no injuries.

The plan says the facility did not have any other dangerous chemicals on hand. It says that the plan was on file with the local fire department and that the company had implemented proper safety rules.

Should someone at the EPA have noticed the presence of 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia and had a light bulb explode above them?  Perhaps — but we don’t know how many reports each person had to review, and whether — as seems likely — more attention was given to ones that reported that there was a fire risk.  Who filled out that report?  Someone who either knew or should have known that that amount of anhydrous ammonia posed a risk of a massive explosion in the event of a fire.  [And, obviously, this applies all the more so to ammonium nitrate.]

But maybe they didn’t know either.  You know who really should have known?  The people who own the bloody plant, who after all are in the fertilizer business.  They’re supposed to know about this sort of risk, right?  Presumably, they’re supposed to make sure that the first responders coming to help out in the event of a fire know that as well.  And yet somehow they let things go through improperly reported, perhaps presuming that the risk of any such fire was small.  And so a bunch of fire fighters — six of them were missing as of midnight our time, by the way — headed out there, thinking that they were fighting a fire that looked like the first photo at the far left, not realizing that they were turning it into [faced] the kind of horror you see in the second through fourth photos.

The EPA, you may recall, was one of the three agencies that Texas Governor (and would-be sucker of businesses out of California) Rick Perry said that he’d want to eliminate if elected President.  (The others being umm, ahhh, forget it.  Oops!)  Well here’s something to keep in mind.  Those people in Texas are just as dead and just as wounded from this explosion — and probably each in slightly greater number — as were their counterparts in Boston two days previous.  Yes, we want to be able to prevent and to solve crime, but let me ask you a cold-blooded conservative accountant-like question:

Which is going to save more lives: an extra million dollars going into more FBI agents and prisons and whatever we think could have prevented or deterred the crime in Boston — or putting that million into ensuring that businesses that house hazardous substances are at least reporting correctly to the government agents that regulate them?

I think that it’s likely that the latter saves more lives for less money — but that leads to “more, bigger government.”  I don’t think that I’m anti-government for suggesting stronger workplace safety and consumer safety standards and enforcement, though.  I just think that, like the people cheering on runners in Boston, the people in West, Texas did not deserve to die — and had as much or more to fear from the leaders of their community industry as they did from some crazed domestic terrorist.

Will we see their names and stories as well?  And will the perpetrators, in this case as well, be found and punished?

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)