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“An accident waiting to happen”

I don’t even know what to say.

There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems. Safety inspections were rare at the fertilizer company in West, Texas, that exploded and killed at least 14 people this week.

This is not unusual.

Small fertilizer plants nationwide fall under the purview of several government agencies, each with a specific concern and none required to coordinate with others on what they have found.

The small distributors — there are as many of 1,150 in Texas alone — are part of a regulatory system that focuses on large installations and industries, though many of the small plants contain enough agricultural chemicals to fuel a major explosion.

The plant in West had ammonium nitrate, the chemical used to build the bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. According to a document filed in 2012 with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the maximum amount of this “extremely hazardous substance” the plant could store in one container was 90 tons, and the most it could have on site was 270 tons. It is unknown how much was onsite at any given time, or at the time of the explosion.

It was also authorized to handle up to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a substance the Texas environmental agency considers flammable and potentially toxic.

“This type of facility is a minor source of air emissions,” Ramiro Garcia, the head of enforcement and compliance at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Associated Press.

“So the inspections are complaint driven. We usually look at more of the major facilities.”

No federal agency determines how close a facility handling potentially dangerous substances can be to population centers, and in many states, including Texas, many of these decisions are left up to local zoning authorities. And in Texas, the state’s minimal approach to zoning puts plants just yards away from schools, houses and other populated areas, as was the case in West.

That plant received a special permit because it was less than 3,000 feet from a school. The damage from the blast destroyed an apartment complex, nursing home and houses in a four-block area.

In the city of Houston, sexually oriented businesses are forbidden to be within 1,500 feet of a school. Say what you want about strip clubs, they are generally not prone to exploding. From a safety perspective, it’s no contest.

It’s pretty simple. We can simply accept that this sort of thing will happen from time to time, and chalk up the death and destruction as one of the costs of our society, or we can decide that’s not acceptable, and be willing to pay some amount of money to mitigate those risks. I’m pretty sure I know which one we’re going to choose – we already have chosen it, we’re just going to reaffirm that choice – I just wanted to be clear about that fact that it is a choice. It doesn’t have to be like this, we want it to be like this.

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  1. Ross says:

    Who is at fault here? The fertilizer plant that has been in the same location, formerly out of town, for over 50 years, or the folks who built schools and apartments on property near the plant? Do you tell a small business owner they have to move, even though they haven’t done anything wrong, or have to spend more money than is economic to make changes to their facility because the town has moved closer?

    If you prohibit certain construction within a specified radius of an existing plant, is that a taking under eminent domain rules, subject to compensation?

    Lots of difficult issues here.

  2. It’s far from clear at this point that the plant did nothing wrong. I feel pretty confident that when all is said and done, there will have been some safety issues that could and should have been addressed.

    That said, no, the plant should not have had to move as other development crept in. What should have happened is that the local government should have had some kind of zoning or other development code to establish that it’s not proper to put a school that close to it. Even without the threat of explosion, the ammonia fumes had been problematic in the past. If undoing that is impossible in other towns, then stepped-up safety regulations for the plant are all that’s left. You can see what can happen otherwise.

    You’re right, there’s lots of difficult issues here. There isn’t going to be one solution to them. But doing nothing isn’t an option, unless you’re going to accept the risk of this happening again somewhere else.

  3. Mel says:

    I’d say the illegally operating fertilizer plant is at fault. Seems pretty cut and dry.

  4. Linkmeister says:

    Deregulation occasionally equals death. That’s regrettable but certainly not so terrible that regulation should be put in place. So thinks a certain ideology which seems to hold sway in certain regions of the United States. Regulation is even worse than death.