Journalism in the Public Interest

What Went Wrong in West, Texas — and Where Were the Regulators?

Seven different agencies regulate fertilizer plants in Texas, but none of them have authority over how close they are to homes and schools.

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April 27, 2013, 11:23 a.m.

Wayne: interesting post! I just read another report published by FAIR (an accuracy in media blog) which puts yet another face on the Texas disaster. Titled, “Fexas Fertilizer Plant Disaster: Little Coverage, Much of it Wrong”. In it, Fair provides a transcript of EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, a guest on this week’s “CounterSpin”.

His report contradicts yours as to the cause, includes anti-regulations political motivations (yours carefully excludes them), and is also fascinating reading as yours and ProPublica’s are.


April 27, 2013, 12:06 p.m.

Wayne, I don’t think you read the article. Whether the storage facility is in or outside city limits is not the issue, the issue is—were city officials derelict in their duties by letting houses, apartments, rest home, a park, schools, etc. be built so close to the plant, clearly they were.

The “malicious presentation on the State of Texas’ industrial atmosphere” is not from the article, there is no such characterization therein—that characterization is in the responses, rightly so—and derives from the result of Texas’ failure to regulate to protect its citizens.

As to your “Fact one”, it seems clear that there has been no meaningful inspection of this facility in decades.

Fact two Because Texas has failed its citizens by not passing mandatory zoning requirements, does not relieve them of their incompetence, and “exempting it [the facility] from municipal regulation and exempting the City of West from having to consider it in any municipal zoning that it may have”, wrong, government, local, state or federal is suppose to be in the business of protecting its people, the city had a duty to its residents not to allow homes, apartments, schools, etc. across the street from this facility, they failed their duty miserable, in my mind their conduct is criminal negligence. Of course, sadly, it was their brother, fathers, sisters, grandmas, children that have paid the price for their incompetence. Stated simply, they failed to take adequate measures (they took none in reality) to protect themselves.

As to your last fact, while it seems clear from the videos that there was an initial explosion, perhaps caused by vaporized anhydrous ammonia, confinement only magnifies the explosive effect, by disallowing vapors to dissipate. It’s like flight TWA 800 that exploded near New York, it was determined that vaporized jet fuel in the center fuel tank was ignited causing that explosion. Here, it seems clear that the initial explosion changed the arrangement of the fuel (ammonium nitrate) from pile form with little oxygen surrounding each flammable particle of the fuel, to making the fuel airborne (suspended in the air) with lots of oxygen surrounding each grain of ammonium nitrate, causing a self-propagating explosion until all the ammonium nitrate was consumed, which, as we see form the video, only took a second or two, leaving the remaining combustible material not well arranged with oxygen, causing it to burn like any ordinary fire.

I saw this demonstrated on I believe the TV show “Emergency” back in the seventies. In that episode Gage and Desoto did a demonstration for school children as I remember, they used a match to light a 2x4 on file, of course it did not light, they used a match to light a piece of kindling on fire, it barely lit, next they blew a small pile of fine sawdust held in the palm of their hand at the match and it exploded, poof. This is the “arrangement of the fuel” that caused this explosion consuming, apparently, all the ammonium nitrate stored at the West facility.

The initial blast caused, at least some of the onsite flammable ammonium nitrate, to become airborne, arranging this flammable fuel for the worst possible outcome with the oxygen surrounding it, until all of the ammonium nitrate was airborne (suspended in the oxygen) and consumed.

The vented sheds where you say the ammonium nitrate was stored compounded the explosive effect of this phenomenon by restricting/confining its burning. This is why grain elevators will and do explode, the grain dust, which is certainly not considered an explosive substance, explode. The dust, which is clearly flammable, mixed in a dangerous ration with oxygen, add a little confinement, an ignition source and the elevator explodes. The Shakopee Energy Plant Explosion happened last Thursday, probably a similar scenario as West.

This is a finding from the Haysville, Kansas grain storage facility explosion on June 8, 1998: “Dust explosions are a leading hazard in the grain industry. A lack of proper housekeeping and equipment maintenance can contribute to the accumulation of combustible dust. If combustible dust is suspended and ignited the resulting explosions can result in the loss of life and property.” Negligence, plain and simple.

I allege that the operators of the West facility were criminally negligent, was were the people charged with their oversight.


April 27, 2013, 4:26 p.m.

I am surprised you didn’t say more about the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Some years ago reporters looked into that agency and concluded it was a disaster.

So, if you want to get a head start on some future disaster, look into that agency. See if it has improved since the 1990s.

This story paints a typical portrait of civil service in this country—too many employees blowing off the true requirements of their offices and making excuses for being lazy.

Truly, one OSHA inspector could have pulled info on whether the plant was registered with everyone, including Homeland Security—don’t tell me it is against the rules for an OSHA inspector to do an overview. he prints out docs with headers on them, with registration numbers—I mean, c’mon. It isn’t rocket science..

After inspecting some widget or another, is it really against the rules to alert homeland security that this plant isn’t registered? Even only a phone call? Really?

That’s just one example. Not to single out OSHA, at least they actually showed up every score years or so. Am only saying that it is absurd to pay good tax money for such deadbeats and an insult to have to listen to their stupid excuses.


April 28, 2013, 2:58 a.m.

Organic farming. That’s the cure.

Progress? Sure, it feeds babies. But the babies just grow up and vote Republican. Stop the cycle: Farm organic!


April 28, 2013, 8:43 a.m.

Boy are the conservative trolls on here!
“This situation reeks of government corruption and bloat.”
Actually it reeks of conservative deregulation aka no oversight & no protections, hence the big explosion, duh.
As with all “Free Market” self regulation, it destroyed itself in spectacular fashion, not unlike the Gulf oil spill & the bank/Wall St crash of 2008.
Free Market theory is just a scam for the rich & big business. And of all 1st world westernized countries, the USA has by far the least regulations, due to our conservatives completely selling out.
Reagan Budget Director: GOP Is Coalition Of Gangs That Stand For Nothing

J Hedley

April 28, 2013, 9:48 a.m.

The explosion was caused by the fire fighting response. Dumping water on the fire caused vigorous evolution of hydrogen gas which ignited. The company should have previously coordinated with local emergency response and stockpiled fire suppression.

They didn’t and for that negligence there will be market and legal repercussions. I might also point out that regulations relating to this specific lapse have never been under the purview of OSHA.

It was an accident- in an intractably imperfect world these things happen.  So many of the posters on this forum seem unwilling or unable to accept this fact. They ascribe this event to nefarious moral factors like greed, ignorance and incompetence; as if they are part of some New Elect who are perfect in mind, morals and appearance and have an enlightened and superior insight into all matters.

The logic is dismaying: imperfect bureaucrats, imperfect commercial actors and an imperfect populace should somehow be able to create a perfect all knowing and morally perfect (according to liberal secular theology) government that is capable of complete foreknowledge and armed with omnipotent regulatory control of this same populace.  You people believe this with no evidence except a complete and utter hubris about your own powers of deduction and insight.

Unless you have belief in some orthodox faith there is NOTHING, in this world at least, that will save you. Expecting or, as many of these posts suggest, demanding that others in the form of corporations and (most paramount) the government protect them from the never ending litany of potential threats within entire minutiae of daily life is Folly. You have missed the entire point of life and have been suitably rewarded by your miserable, ideologically driven, response. Enjoy a long and unhappy life of disappointment.

The response of most posters

Chaz marek

April 28, 2013, 12:09 p.m.

I was born and raised here in West, Tx and I assure you most of what y’all are seeing in the media is false!!! There was barely any anhydrous or ammonia nitrate at the co-op, the ammonia nitrate did NOT explode, there was nothing at that plant capable of causing that type of explosion. There are many of us locals asking questions cause we know the media is lying and the government is hiding something!

Jim pell

April 28, 2013, 1:37 p.m.

If Chaz’s comments are correct then we do have a problem. if the 21-0-0 pile is still intact and AH tanks are all intact then there is a problem. The water had nothing to do with the explosion.  However, the fireman and the water did help contain the fire and delayed the explosion, allowing the evacuation of residents of the nursing home. Or at least movement of some of them. We should our respect and appreciation to the fireman that sacified their lives.
A former fertilizer facility worker / manager

A former volunteer fireman / Fire chief

U S Veteran / Viet Nam Veteran


April 28, 2013, 1:58 p.m.

J. Hedley, I prefer not to live in your world where people are expendable for the benefit of business profits. It is the entire Texas culture of no business regulation that led to this disaster, really, 3 people die in Boston and five times as many die here, in a clearly preventable “accident”. If you look up before and after pictures of West, clearly the tanks, perhaps as many as five, visible in the before pictures are gone, some claim these were storing anhydrous ammonia, if true, that’s one hell of a lot of this stuff so close to schools, homes, an old folks home, etc. the, at least two, large metal roofed buildings are also gone, some claim that these buildings were storing the ammonium nitrate, reported to be up to 270 tons of if, or 1350 times more that that amount that triggers reporting to Homeland Security, and several other what appear to be smaller building are gone, all that seems to be left are the trailers, probably used, to deliver the ammonium nitrate to customers.

The very best of this situation is “criminal negligence” the worst is certainly something quite “nefarious”.

Kathy Sexton

April 28, 2013, 3:17 p.m.

Welcome to Rick Perry’s Texas where regulation does not kill jobs. It kills and maims people instead.  Governor Rick Perry has been running around the U.S. boasting about Texas and its low taxes, small government, weak regulation, little oversight, anti-union right to work state in which workers and consumers have few protections. Rick Perry is proud to let business owners know that they can move their businesses to Texas where they can avoid paying taxes while they run rough shod over the safety and well-being of its residents and consumers in one form or another.  Because of lax if any regulation in Texas where plants like West can run amok, this would be a perfect place for terrorists to flee to as well.  I wonder if this dark thought ever crossed the Governor’s mind?  As we learned very recently, there can be devastating consequences to Rick Perry and the Texas GOP’s anti-government hysterics and its libertarian approach to zoning laws, i.e. no zoning at all.  Rick Perry claims that low regulation levels the playing field.  But as we recently learned, low regulation also levels schools, homes, churches and businesses.  Not to mention the loss of life where apparently life is cheap in Rick Perry’s unregulated Texas.
“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”  Meanwhile, back at Rick Perry’s ranch of crony capitalist corruption, the federal government basher in chief, begged the feds to help clean up the mess and pick up the tab for the damage. PLEASE SAY NO, MR. PRESIDENT. Let West Fertilizer pay for the devastation it created. WE SHOULD PUT AN END TO THIS KIND OF CORPORATE WELFARE FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL. Come to think of it, the terrorists we should fear the most in the U.S. are the corporations that have bought the regulators.  Finally, it seems to me that Mr. Adair has a lot more to worry about than civil lawsuits…his prosecution of the murders of the many responders is called for as he intentionally and illegally failed to follow the law…making him complicit in the deaths of so many heroes…and I for one hope to see him prosecuted and sentenced with the full extent of the law…as an example to the corporate entities and journalists doing their best to cover this up and have the American public swallow just another industrial accident.


April 28, 2013, 3:43 p.m.

You know, I KNEW it would come to this: blame the regulators, blame the government, blame EVERYBODY but the owners for not complying with SAFETY regulations. I have to admit, though, I was surprised that someone managed to find a way to blame the union. Kudos, sir. Kudos. With that kind of stretching ability, you should start your own taffy business.


April 28, 2013, 4:15 p.m.

Hold responsible the owners/officers/employees (to the extent of them were responsible) for what happened at that plant and take them to court to hold them responsible for what they did and who they harmed. What we do not need is more regulation and ineffective government bureaucrats failing to enforce what are likely to be misguided regulations filled with unintended consequences that punish the businesses that are not harming others while still failing to catch those that are harming others.


April 28, 2013, 6:20 p.m.

An interesting video aired yesterday (4/27/13) on MSNBC interviewing Mike Elk from “Media Matters” (another accuracy in media watchdog which I respect along with FAIR and ProPublica.)

for video clip, search: “MSNBC Segment Highlights Media Matters’ Report On How Media Ignored TX Plant’s Regulatory Violations”

(For you anti-regulation folks posting here, the effort to provide all of us citizens with accuracy in media is sort of like trying to get the Texas Board of education to stop re-writing our history and science books so they conform to their own narrow religous/conservative ideologies.)

dina padilla

April 29, 2013, 10:32 a.m.

Well, In Bangladesh, they found the guy/owner of the garment factory that went poof! He faces criminal charges. Well, why aren’t we doing that here? Employers/corporations have been getting away with maiming and killing for decades with no regulations with NO regard for life AND when you build a whole damn town while amassing a chemical plant IT’S A sure fire recipe for a must in creating a disaster but that is THE usual here in the U.S..

dina padilla

April 29, 2013, 10:42 a.m.

AND there are many ways to off folks. Unprotected towns with giant chemical plants are one of them. Now one can only pray that they don’t go to Kaiser for care. Other workers have and most don’t get to live and talk about it, even those that work for them! But you all had a kaiser there. But lest, I forget that they were chased out because they failed to have the proper staff to diagnose one Texan mayor’s heart attack
OOPS,  just another of maiming and killing by unregulated employers and it goes on and on and on….......until those that run these sweat shops go to jail for at least manslaughter!


April 29, 2013, 11:15 a.m.

FYI… corporations are a creation of government.

Carry on…


April 29, 2013, 11:45 a.m.

Richard says “FYI… corporations are a creation of government”

Your “shocking” insight implies ignorance on the part of those of us who want a balance in regulations and corporate/business interests so the interests/safety/future health of our planet in the entirety of our population is represented.

All laws, regulations, businesses, corporations, etc. are “creations of government” Without these legal definitions and without the enforcement of legally defined responsibilities, we would be living (and dying) in a state of predatory anarchy. Duh.


April 29, 2013, 11:58 a.m.

Carolyn, the entity you are so repulsed by only exists because GOVERNMENT created it… “shocking” (NOT) that you cannot see that and think that the obvious fix is more government.

dina padilla

April 29, 2013, Noon

We already are dying of predators that are “corporations” (because of the lack of rules, legal definitions that are not used or enforced (creations of government) and it has been going on for decades. DUH!


April 29, 2013, 12:06 p.m.

Richard: Your mistake is assuming I’m “repulsed” by the existence of businesses and corporations. I am NOT, nor are any other pro regulations people I know.


What we ARE in favor of is effectively regulating them so they can’t run roughshod over our rights to a safe work environment, that they don’t overwhelm our voice in government by buying off our representatives, and they don’t destroy our planet.


April 29, 2013, 12:29 p.m.

heeeeeey learning about this, at school with clove and ariel. thanks for the info(:


April 29, 2013, 1:16 p.m.

... so that they are no longer businesses, just governmental entities that will be as ineffective as the government that creates/regulates them.

dina padilla

April 29, 2013, 1:27 p.m.

All would be surprised at how many of these companies ARE military owned & operated!


April 29, 2013, 1:34 p.m.

Military?... hey, that’s the GOVERNMENT too!

dina padilla

April 29, 2013, 1:58 p.m.

YES BUT! When you have a country owned and operated by the military that is called Faschism! (wrong spelling)

Jim Pell

April 29, 2013, 8:26 p.m.

I need to retract or a least change some of my comments.
I do not feel that the water caused the explosion as some of you contend. I do feel that the water did prolong the explosion to aid in evacuation of the nursing home. (BTW: It is NOT called an ” Old Folks Home ” It is a nursing home and they do care for younger people that need convalescence or other care.) And no I do not live in one.
Again, I feel we should show our respect and gratitude for the firefighters and rescue personnel. They spend a LOT of time away from their families, training and fighting fires and saving lives. It takes a lot of time and hard work to even get on these departments. I assume that a department in a small community like this would be mostly volunteers. If so, they receive very little or no compensation for their effort.
We need to let the professionals do their job and determine the cause so we can prevent a devastation like this from ever happening again.
If possible!!!
Once again, from a retired, 25 year volunteer firefighter.

Steve Hunter

April 30, 2013, 10:57 a.m.

Sadly this is Texas.

dina padilla

April 30, 2013, 12:53 p.m.

In response to the Sac Bee political cartoonist. What his cartoon states to me is Gov. Perry is the braggart that governs Texas but who doesn’t brag at all to implement the rule of law to protect his fellow Texan people. Like some expected other current politicians, he is more concerned about business and business as usual rather than the well being and general welfare of Texan people who the gov should be protecting at all costs!

Liberty or Death

May 1, 2013, 12:40 p.m.

I find it interesting and laughable that in all of the articles I have been reading in the media (here and the Daily Kos) they mention the lack of reporting to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when the fact is the DHS (through the CFAT requirements) are tasked with ensuring the security of chemical facilities so they are not targeted by terrorists or the chemicals these facilities have are not obtained by terrorists to make IED’s.  News flash: The DHS IS NOT tasked with ensuring regulated entities disclose chemical storage and use in respect to planning for emergency responses, instead incident pre-planning and emergency response is tasked to local (city/town/county) agencies under Federal EPA’s EPCRA/SARA Title III reporting requirements.  The EPCRA/SARA Title III laws/regulations were instituted in 1986 as a result of the 1984 Bhopal tragedy. 

Also, OSHA is not an emergency response agency, OSHA normally only inspects a business when they receive a complaint, there has been a serious injury or death or a regulated entity has a higher than average injury incidence rate for their business sector.

Instead it is the LEPC’s (Local Emergency Planning Committees) the local fire department and local code enforcement agencies that should have been more diligent in this case.  There are also a multitude of other regulations and codes already in effect such as International Fire Codes, International Building Codes and Emergency Pre-Planning requirements that are required for any facility storing/using hazardous materials/chemicals. 

LEPC’s are responsible for ensuring regulated entities disclose their chemical storage and use in order to plan in the event of an incident, yet the media outlets keep talking about the lack of reporting to DHS when the fact of the matter is all of the reporting in the world to DHS would not have stopped this tragedy and constantly pointing to the lack of reporting to DHS just proves you are uninformed.  Perhaps this media outlet and other media outlets would better serve and inform their readers if they did some research into if the fertilizer company made the appropriate reporting to their LEPC, not the DHS.

In addition the media keeps spouting off about how it is the mean old conservatives (like Rick Perry) and their deregulation that allowed this tragedy to happen, that is utter nonsense!  There are plenty of regulations currently on the books that were not complied with and creating more regulations will not keep tragedies like this from occurring again.  This is not a political issue it is an issue of more unfunded mandates!  It’s important we have laws to protect people and the environment, however just as important is we need the resources to enforce those laws/regulations already on the books.   

What is becoming very clear is the company failed to report on the amounts and types of chemicals being stored and where they were stored as required under ECPRA/SARA Title III, had the company done so the fire department would have taken a DEFENSIVE POSTURE and would NOT have attempted to fight the fire and instead concentrated on evacuation!

If any lessons can come from this is that the LEPC for the city/county/town where this facility is located will allocate more resources to step up inspections and enforcement of federal laws and regulations already in place.  Again, adding more regulations will not solve this, the regulations and laws are already in place and were never relaxed under any administration, democrat or republican.  It’s easy to place blame but placing blame is not constructive, it’s much more constructive to come up with solutions.             

The bottom line is the company failed to disclose critical information to their LEPC (as required under Federal EPA EPCRA/SARA Title II) and that proved to be tragic for the first responders.  While the company is ultimately responsible I also believe the local regulatory agencies need to re-evaluate their inspection and enforcement programs. 

Again, this tragedy has nothing to do with Bush, Obama, Rick Perry or any politician or politics in general…it’s one thing to stand on a soap box to score political points, however it is in very bad taste to stand on the dead bodies of this tragedy to score political points!

For more information on EPCRA/SARA Title III requirements, click the link below:

dina padilla

May 1, 2013, 1:08 p.m.

Maybe we need some of these folks who have written so well on who governs who and on what needs to apply for a job in the correct agency so that plants like the one in West, Texas have the oversight they need! Because it is apparent someone dropped the ball and the volunteer firefighters died and there is no compensation for them or others who died and then are those who lost everything, a town that didn’t belong anywhere near this plant and volunteers who tried to the right thing and no one informed them of what they were going to be up against. Lame excuses don’t replace people! At least, Probulica brought this to everyone’s attention which is more than was done prior to the explosion to prevent the needless human deaths and destruction!

Jerry Bohnen

May 2, 2013, 8:44 a.m.

Good piece. However, I think it is unfair to state as you did that the plant didn’t report the storage of the fertilizer to Homeland Security.
“The West plant held 270 tons — yes, tons — of the chemical last year, according to a report it filed with the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the plant didn’t tell Homeland Security.

Carrie Williams, a Department of State Health Services spokeswoman, told ProPublica that the agency isn’t required to pass that information — which is also sent to local authorities — on to Homeland Security.”
Perhaps you should have written that because of bureaucracy, Homeland Security was never given the information. You suggest the plant intentionally failed to tell Homeland Security and your story wrongly painted the fertilizer plant as the culprit.

Liberty or Death

May 2, 2013, 4:01 p.m.

Jerry Bohnen said: Perhaps you should have written that because of bureaucracy, Homeland Security was never given the information. You suggest the plant intentionally failed to tell Homeland Security and your story wrongly painted the fertilizer plant as the culprit.

I hear what you are saying Jerry and I agree bureaucracy can stand in the way of what needs to be done and I guess that’s why I’m for limited government.  With that said as I mentioned in a previous comment even if DHS had received the information on the amount of ammonium nitrate stored it would not have prevented this tragedy as DHS is tasked with ensuring chemical facilities are not targeted by terrorists and/or the chemicals at such facilities do not end up in the hands of terrorists to make IED’s.  The DHS is not involved in emergency preparedness for such incidents, that is tasked to the Local Emergency Response Committee (LEPC) and the local fire department/hazmat units.

Where the fertilizer company failed and is culpable is their failure to report to their LEPC on how much ammonium nitrate they were storing, where on-site it was stored and how it was being stored (e.g., in a tank, in drums, super sacks, etc.)  This is a requirement under EPA’s EPCRA/SARA Title III regulation and is separate from the DHS reporting requirements.  EPCRA/SARA Title III was implemented to ensure local emergency responders have the information needed to safely respond to incidents at chemical plants as a result of the 1984 Bhopal incident and has been law/regulation since 1986. 

If the responding fire department had access to the information the fertilizer company was required to report to the LEPC under EPCRA/SARA Title III they would of had the critical information needed to determine how to respond to the fire, e.g., take an offensive posture and attempt to put out the fire or take a defensive posture by isolating/denying entry and evacuating to a safe distance. 

Tragically not having this information the responding fire department at first chose to take an offensive posture and fight the fire, by the time the call was made to evacuate it was too late and the responders paid the price.  Having worked closely with LEPC’s, fire departments and hazmat units for going on 30 years I can assure you if they (the responding fire department) had the information omitted by the fertilizer plant they would have never attempted to fight the fire and instead used that time to evacuate themselves and the affected community to a safe distance.

I am confident that when the Chemical Safety Board completes their investigation the fact the responding fire department chose to fight the fire initially instead of taking a defensive posture and evacuating (due to the failure of the fertilizer plant to report and coordinate with their LEPC) will be one of several factors that lead to the number of deaths that occurred.

Bottom line is the fertilizer company failed to report to their LEPC under EPCRA/SARA Title III requirements and the other agency you mentioned (Department of State Health Services) had no obligation under the law to notify the LEPC, that responsibility laid squarely with the fertilizer company and there is no getting around that fact and I’m certain the law suits that are sure to come will prove me correct.

Steve Hopkins

May 7, 2013, 2:20 a.m.

Not to get too far off the track, but part of what the moribund U.S. environmental movement needs is an angrier soundtrack for when stuff like this is allowed to happen. Here’s a new American anthem guaranteed to stir the soul of any red-blooded environmentalist, as well as lure a few emotionally sensitive people over from the dark side. Feel free to use it. Scream your anger!

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