In West Explosion, Echoes of Another Texas Tragedy

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A rubber factory destroyed by the 1947 Texas City disaster.
University of Houston Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons
A rubber factory destroyed by the 1947 Texas City disaster.

The still-unfolding tragedy in West, Texas—where a fertilizer plant caught fire and exploded on Wednesday night—is a reminder of how achingly redundant some things in the state can be. There has been a long string of industrial explosions, accidents and mishaps that not only claim lives but unleash eerily similar and unanswered questions about negligence and official oversight.

Texas was home to the largest industrial disaster in American history—and it happened to involve fertilizer, the very thing at the core of the West explosion. In what most historians call The Texas City Disaster of 1947, several tons of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer blew up and set off a series of fires and eruptions that claimed close to 600 lives, injured 5,000, knocked planes out of the sky, and allegedly inspired a hard look by government officials at workplace regulations, and disaster preparedness (and response) in municipalities, counties and states around the nation.

The cruel irony of what happened in Texas City is echoing right now in West. The fertilizer that leveled parts of Texas City in 1947 was destined for Europe as part of the Marshall Plan, to help revitalize bombed-out farms—and to encourage parts of Europe to stay clear of the Soviet Union. Scientists around the nation and world were well aware of fertilizer’s capabilities. They had long warned that it was capable of massive destruction (including bombs), but that it could also be used to make crops grow almost magically.

Timothy McVeigh resorted to ammonium-based fertilizer when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. So did the terrorists who first tried to take down the World Trade Center, in 1993. Knowledge of the incendiary, nightmarish power of fertilizer is not uncommon, elusive or arcane—the literature and science have been studied for more than a century.

Cars parked a quarter-mile from the explosions.
University of Houston Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons
Cars parked a quarter-mile from the explosions.

In the years after the apocalyptic events in Texas City, many of the lessons were unfortunately exiled to history—particularly how the hardworking folks who were most affected by the disaster were left with so many unanswered questions: Could anything have been done to make their community safer? Could something have been done to prevent the disaster? Was there enough oversight, regulation?

In search of answers, hundreds of survivors and families filed the first large-scale class-action lawsuit ever against the federal government. As it dragged on for years (the good folks in Texas City were eventually denied their due in court), the case circled, time and again, around a debate that is still resonating today—never more so than in West: Were officials in Texas City, in state government, in federal government, so eager for commerce, for jobs, that they endorsed the building of factories, plants and chemical wonderlands just a stone’s throw from homes, churches and even schools? Was all caution used? Did heavy industry—including extraordinarily dangerous fertilizer plants—show up in Texas because the state is so perpetually resistant to regulation?

Because I wrote a book about The Texas City Disaster, my phone began ringing last night with reporters asking about parallels between West and Texas City. A public radio producer who said he wasn’t from Texas wanted to know if it was common to have industrial facilities, like the ones in West, close to residential areas, to schools, to a nursing home. He wanted to know if that kind of thing was “grandfathered” in.

I told him it was complex, and we talked about an inherited political and economic ethos in Texas. That the anti-oversight credo runs deep. It’s in the state’s bedrock. And that, over time, the results are painfully predictable: There will be another explosion (there have been others, more recent ones, in Texas City). There will be more loss of life. And the same questions will emerge—and probably dissipate: What could have been done? Was there enough oversight?

 

Observer columnist Bill Minutaglio is the author of City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle. He is also a clinical professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin.

  • Kim Feil

    Jobs at any cost. Low natural gas price feedstock for “lets poison or blow us up” products isn’t logical. The Magnablend explosion (fracking chemical mixing plant) should have been a wake up call. Any supporting or benefitting company in bed with natural gas and its mafia is to stop and look hard at whats happened here. I live in Arlington Gasland Texas where we have 60 URBAN padsites in a 99 sq mile area. City Council feels we should co-exist, but it isn’t a peaceful coexistance when odors come into your home, sicken people around the Cowboys Stadium (1/31/2013), and not one nuisance violation against Chesapeake is found…and even if they did fine them, it would be only up to $2,000. No…our Planning and Zoning and City Councils serve only the industry and those greedy for blood money. Blood money in the form of royalties which has turned out to be more like a scam in the big scheme of what we gave up (health/safety and peaceful enjoyment of our properties) in signing away our mineral rights in residential areas. More of these disasters will continue as long as industry mixes with residential and school properties. No one is enforcing TEX LG. CODE ANN. A§ 253.005 : Texas Statutes – Section 253.005: LEASE OF OIL, GAS, OR MINERAL LAND “(c) A well may not be drilled in the thickly settled part of the municipality..” and Texas Administrative Code, Title 30, Part 1, Chapter 101, Subchapter A, Rule 101.4, Environmental Quality, Nuisance. Its a Gov. Perry free for all ya’ll. BOOM-get used to it or stop electing industry friendly local, state and federal representatives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Larry-Luther/100000192348763 Larry Luther

    What the commentary fails to address is that small municipalities such as West have no powers of annexation. I spent all of my teens living on the TSTC campus just south of West, and thus went to Connally Jr. High, and Connally High. I’ve been to the football stadium in West at least a half-dozen times. This was back in the early 70s. At that time West High was just west of this stadium. The street that runs roughly east to west and just north of the old West High was obviously at one time the northern boundary of the City of West. West Fertilizer Co. was located several hundred yards from the old West High, and the stadium. It is very obvious from Google Maps that the most northern portion of the City of West grew-up from the afore mentioned street that served at one time as the northern boundary of the City of West. This gets us to the problem the real problem with the proximity of the West Fertilizer Co. homes, schools, and nursing homes. The real problem is urban, or suburban encroachment. Such encroachments are simply a natural part of having a growing population.

  • mac mc cabe

    i’m not a Texan, am not in Texas and further, not here to beat up Texas in this hour of tragedy.

    can we compare the Boston bombing and the circumstances that allowed the fertilizer plant to do so much damage to property but, infinitely more important, to the community and ask do we know who our real enemies are.

    why are we riveted on Boston and not so much on West? two factors would be the marathon and of course, Muslims.

    is it fair to say the catastrophic loss in West was the result of utter disregard by corporate America and piss-poor governmental oversight?

    so, who are our enemies? extremists of the wing nut stripe, be it religious or political and the hogs at the trough who cannot get enough wealth that is made possible by the sweat of hard working Americans.

  • Tyler S.

    Thanks for the history behind West and Texas City – very interesting. It seems to me that there should be some sort of zoning in place for new (and historical) fertilizer plants that would keep them at a safe distance from an civilians and sesitive receptors.

    Here is a full list of the West Fertilizer’s compliance history with the TCEQ (offical state documents): http://www.banksinfo.com/blog/compliance-history-of-west-fertilizer-plant/#more-3295. You will notice some clear violations in years past, including failing to notify the TCEQ they had moved locations and numerous air complaints were filed by people living in the area.

  • texasaggie

    Then there are the present problems of chemical plants in residential (low socioeconomic strata) areas in cities along the coast. They are already slowly maiming and killing people far more than in West.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thomas.bodine.3 Thomas Bodine

    It is interesting that in Texas City where there was an explosion, thirty years after the event, the refineries have been buying property near the plants in an apparent effort to put a buffer between themselves and the populace. In West where until now such an explosion hadn’t taken place the town was built right next door to the factory.

    It is unfortunate that it takes a local disaster to get local business men and authorities to act appropriately.

  • SoberMoney

    Texas is the perfect example of the new American jihadist state – one of “Deregulation Terrorism.”