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Fertilizer plant blast: how lax security hints at regulatory gaps in Texas

The Texas fertilizer plant, targeted for years by thieves who wanted anhydrous ammonia to produce drugs, reportedly had no fence, alarms, or guards. Yet state regulators raised few security concerns before the deadly blast.

By Staff writer / May 5, 2013

An investigators looks over a destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday.

LM Otero/AP

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During testimony before a Texas House committee last week, state regulators did not disclose knowing that thieves had for years exploited lackadaisical security to infiltrate the chemical storage areas of the West Fertilizer Co., which vanished in a massive explosion on April 17.

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But plant security is just one of several areas of minimal or absent government oversight that have come to light since the explosion. Fifteen people died and dozens of structures were destroyed when a tank of ammonium nitrate blew up as firefighters tried to douse a fire at the plant.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has steadfastly asserted that the state’s pro-business, antiregulation attitude is not to blame for the explosion or its aftermath. But as a House committee began to ask questions this week of key regulators, no one from the state’s major oversight agencies – which included the state chemist, as well as heads of the department of public safety, insurance commission, and environmental quality – mentioned the plant’s long record of theft problems, an issue reported in a Reuters exclusive Friday.

The omission points to one of several potential regulatory gaps in how states and the federal government oversee volatile compounds stored near homes and schools, in particular whether laws are strong enough to allow inspectors to force industries like fertilizer plants to beef up costly security and fire suppression equipment on their premises.

“I guess [Texas state regulators] don’t want people to know there’s no security,” says Glenn Smith, the Austin-based author of “The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction.”

“The problem is, there are 44 other facilities like this scattered around the state,” he says, “and if you listen to the agencies with jurisdiction, none of those [sites] are protected to the degree they should be, and that shouldn’t stand. This shouldn’t even be a political issue.”

With an investigation ongoing at the 15-acre explosion site, there’s no information so far to suggest the fire that led to the explosion was related to a security breach.

Moreover, thieves in the past had targeted the plant’s anhydrous ammonia tanks, which remained intact after the explosion. Anhydrous ammonia can be used as an ingredient in the illicit cooking of methamphetamines, and thieves across the country target both larger facilities and smaller farm storage tanks, according to government researchers.

Plant officials have said that on several occasions thieves caused airborne releases from the plant after twisting off valves to get to the anhydrous ammonia.

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