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.

Ron T. Ennis/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP
Volunteers organize donated goods at the WestFest grounds on Friday for any West, Texas residents who are in need after a fertilizer plant explosion earlier this week.

Some residents of this small Texas town didn't pay too much attention to an evening fire at the West Fertilizer Company, with some grilling hot dogs on a nice spring evening in a neighborhood just across the railroad tracks from the plant.

But others received panicked phone calls, including one that said: "Y'all need to get out of there – now!"

Minutes later, in the case of one resident who scrambled toward his truck, the plant blew up, killing at least 14 people – many of them first responders – injuring 200, and destroying some 80 homes. Residents stumbling around in the aftermath described a sickening war zone – houses afire, alarms shrieking, and neighbors bloodied and prone.

But what became striking to many Americans as the tragedy unfolded and the immense power of the blast came to be understood is why anyone allowed homes, a school and a nursing home to be built next to a plant that in large quantities stores derivatives of ammonia, one of the most explosive substances on the planet?

History certainly was no guide. After all, ammonia has been the key accelerant in some of the world's largest industrial accidents, including an explosion that killed hundreds in Toulouse, France, in 2001, and a 1947 blast that killed nearly 600 people in Texas City, Texas. The bomb assembled and planted by Timothy McVeigh next to the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was fueled primarily by ammonium nitrate.

A 2008 report by the Center for American Progress called a Pasadena, Texas, fertilizer plant one of the most dangerous chemical plants in the country, since an accident there could make more than 3 million people vulnerable to a major gas release.

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.

"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."

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.

"[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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