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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In the aftermath, US Sen. Jon Cornyn (R) of Texas said the US may have to look at new regulations around the storage of ammonia products, and others called for stronger zoning laws that would mandate separating chemical storage sites and plants from people.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Explosion at a fertilizer factory in West, Texas
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"[S]ometime soon, the state and federal governments will have to mandate a review of these decisions and others like them across rural America and take corrective action. We cannot have people living and going to school next to sub-nuclear ticking time bombs," writes Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News editorial board.
Paul Kucera lives close to the plant, but somehow his home was largely spared. Homes belonging to three other family members, however, were completely destroyed. But like most West residents, Kucera exhibited no animosity or anger toward the plant owner or town officials who allowed construction so close to an explosives storage site.
Instead, he saw the danger as a natural tradeoff of rural farming existence, where danger is always a factor amid killer tornadoes, whirring threshers, pipelines and gas storage facilities necessary to survive on America's rural fringe. In the case of the West Fertilizer Plant, its very products boosted the fertility of both crops and the economy.
"That plant was part of our town and what happened is part of living in a farming town," Kucera says. "You accept a certain level of risk, just as people living in cities do."
But even if town planners in West (who do have a land use plan filed with the state) wanted to mandate a buffer around the West Fertilizer Company plant, they may not have been financially able to do so, suggests Mr. Bland at UNT.
Texas law, to be sure, gives local zoning authorities broad powers to set land use rules, but the US Supreme Court has also ruled that landowners can petition governments for remuneration if zoning decisions negative affect property values.
"So, in West, it would have made sense to zone [the land around the plant] as open space, but can a little town like West, never mind a big city like Atlanta, have the resources to pay landowners for their losses?" says Mr. Bland, at UNT.
Moreover, Bland says, zoning officials may have had to stand on their own if they wanted to mandate a buffer around the plant.
"Oftentimes the strongest opponents to zoning and land use control are local residents, who anticipate benefiting from investment in various types of land – it's a no good deed goes unpunished kind of thing," he says. "All of that means it's very difficult to put into place the sort of policies that will provide optimum level of protection, which in hindsight should have been done here."
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