Why did West, Texas, build homes and a school next to a 'time bomb'?
The town of West, Texas, and the West Fertilizer Company grew and prospered together. But profit motives, a sense of civic trust and Catch-22 zoning laws failed to recognize the danger brought to light when the plant exploded this week with the force of a small nuclear bomb.
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Against that backdrop, the question of why so close, at least in part, cuts to the heart of the civic pact of many American towns, both large and small, where industry and people forge a sort of mutualism that recognizes the symbiotic benefits of labor and profit, and fuels civic pride. After all, small towns from upstate New York to the Texas Panhandle have a similar motif, where a few industries, often near or in town, infuse economic vitality and give young people a reason to stay.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Explosion at a fertilizer factory in West, Texas
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"There's a close bond between employer and community and a level of acceptance that emerges over time, almost an assumption that, well, nothing has happened in the past, therefore everything should be okay," says Bob Bland, chairman of the Public Administration Department at the University of North Texas, in Denton. "[But] there's also something more subtle … a social bond that occurs where the company, factory or plant to some extent defines the social fabric of the community. There's a mutualism that goes beyond just the jobs the company creates."
In West's case, the plant, owned by the local Adair family, was built in 1962 at the edge of a farming community settled in 1892 by emigrant Czechs. As the years went by, the town grew out, past, and around the plant, in a careful embrace underscored by a recognition among at least some in town that danger was ever-present.
One resident watching the fire said a plume of yellow smoke that suddenly erupted was a signal that the ammonium was about to go, an accurate prediction as it turned out. Meanwhile, the plant had been cited as late as 2010 for problems with ammonia venting and for the failure to have a complete emergency plan. Meanwhile, the US inspection protocol for such plants isn't the most intensive, in part because states are primarily responsible for inspections: The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration, meanwhile, has inspected only six Texas fertilizer plants in the last five years.
An agency called the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, however, did inspect and cite the West plant in 2011 for "not having a security plan." After the plant corrected the problems, a $10,100 fine was reduced to $5,250. Before that, the plant had received a $30 fine in 1985 in connection to how it stored anhydrous ammonia at the plant.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is in the process of determining if there was foul play, but so far there's no evidence of anything but an industrial accident.
Plant owner Donald Adair, who lives in West, lauded the community's resilience and vowed to work with investigators to find the cause of the fire in a statement released Thursday.
"The selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us is something I will never get over," he wrote. "I was devastated to learn that we lost one of our employees in the explosion. He bravely responded to the fire at the facility as a volunteer firefighter. I will never forget his bravery and his sacrifice, or that of his colleagues who rushed to the trouble."