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.

LM Otero/AP
An investigators looks over a destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday.

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.

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.

What exploded in West was up to 542,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, the same fertilizer component used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1996. The West explosion registered a 2.1 on the Richter scale.

But McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon told Reuters that security at the plant was lax, meaning there were no perimeter fence, no burglar alarms, and no security guards. “Everybody trusts everybody,” he explained.

Growing concerns about the requirements of physical security at such plants is magnified by the resistance among appointed state regulators to release information about where hazardous materials are stored, fearing such details could get into the hands of terrorists, critics say. State agencies have resisted local newspapers’ demands for more information on such sites, citing an obscure “confidential information” law.

“The reality is there’s plenty of chemical plants out in the open that terrorists can strike if they really want to do this,” says Erik Loomis, a historian at the University of Rhode Island who has followed the aftermath in West.

Since the deadly blast, several potential breakdowns have emerged in how Texas oversaw the West plant, even though the plant had been inspected by a variety of federal and state agencies, as recently as February 2012.

• The plant had been cited by at least one federal agency for the failure to have a proper emergency plan, for which it paid a $5,000 fine after correcting the problems and reporting that a short venting of gas was a worst-case scenario at the plant.

• While industries are required by federal law passed after the Oklahoma City bombing to report the storage of major amounts of ammonium nitrate, the West plant never did.

• Texas regulations put most of the onus for safety and planning on local emergency planning committees and the local fire marshal, prompting Nim Kidd, head of the state Office of Emergency Management, to recommend in his testimony to the Texas House committee Wednesday that concerned citizens “go talk to your fire chief, your mayor, or your county judge. That's how planning works in Texas.” One problem: Unlike most Texas counties, West doesn’t have a fire marshal.

• Texas Insurance Commissioner Elizabeth Kitzman testified that the insurance policy for the West Fertilizer Co. bore “no relationship to the amount of risk that was involved,” suggesting that insurance requirement reform could goose the marketplace to play a bigger role in forcing plants to update their safety and security protocols. The plant was insured for $1 million in liability and the explosion caused as much as $100 million in damage, Fox News Latino reported on Saturday. 

Yet on Friday, the revelations of theft problems at the plant struck at another potential regulatory weakness: the fact that state regulators acknowledge that their primary role is to ensure fairness in the marketplace, not necessarily harp on problems like security or storage.

Asked by legislators on Wednesday whether the Office of the State Chemist would notify authorities if investigators saw problems with security, State Chemist Tim Herrman said, “There aren’t any provisions in the law that really require a certain means of storing chemicals, but … if we saw that there had been vandalism, theft, or that the perimeter had been breached, or that inventory records had discrepancies, it’s very common for us to contact law enforcement officials.” Mr. Herrman, however, did not explicitly tell legislators that his office had noticed anything amiss with the West plant’s security.

The security problems, it turns out, had appeared in other regulatory paperwork with the state. In 2006 the plant’s owners reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that problems with thefts had ended, though more thefts were reported as late as October 2012, according to Reuters. The company has claimed it installed security cameras on the property.

Since the explosion, critics around the country have lambasted the state of Texas for its perceived lax regulation. The issue has played especially large in California, a perennial rival of Texas for economic development, where regulations are more onerous for businesses.

Governor Perry lashed out this week at an editorial cartoonist from California who juxtaposed Perry’s assertion that Texas’ low regulatory requirements have helped the Texas economy “explode” with an image of a massive explosion in West, embellished with the word “Boom.”

The cartoon was published after Perry denied that the state regulatory system was to blame for what happened in West. But lawmakers are clearly facing pressure to get to the bottom of the state’s role in what happened.

“We’re inundated with the whys and whos, and we’re trying to clarify what role the state has at each individual level,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. “We’re trying to unravel how it happened, and how the state took the plant at its word that there was no chance of a fire or accident there.”

US Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said this week that the Senate will also hold hearings on the West disaster, commenting, “It is critical that we find out how this happened … [and] look at how the laws on the books are being enforced and whether there is a need to strengthen them.”

The push to investigate and possibly tweak regulations in Texas after West, however, may be complicated by the fact that the chief victims, the residents of West, have largely sympathized with the plant owner. Many residents saw the plant as simply a part of the natural risk of living in rural areas, though Mr. Smith, the Austin author, argues, “I don’t think there’s any attitude in West that, ‘Oh, we’re willing to pay this price for the state not regulating fertilizer plants;’ I don’t think it can go that far.”

In the case of West, what University of Rhode Island’s Professor Loomis calls a natural American tendency to sympathize with or even be intimidated by industry appeared in a 2002 complaint against the fertilizer plant, in which a concerned resident wrote, “Particles are falling like snow around town. People are afraid to complain.”

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