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Inspections Show Texas Fertilizer Plants Still Vulnerable

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A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.
Jonathan McNamara
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.

In the aftermath of the West fertilizer plant disaster, media outlets—The Dallas Morning News in particular—and some of our better public servants have done yeoman’s work exploring the failures that led to the tragedy. We now know that the oversight and regulation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer plants is complicated and lax at the same time. We know, as the Morning News put it, that “it could happen again” at one of Texas’ hundred or so fertilizer plants. And we know what needs fixing. (For example, it’s remarkably stupid that Texas bans small counties from adopting fire codes. Whatever happened to local control?)

Yet the state has done little to address the problems. The Texas Legislature met for almost four months following the West disaster and didn’t pass a single reform to address the holes in the system.

That’s not to say that some aren’t trying. God bless the state fire marshal, Chris Connealy, for at least doing what he can to prevent another West. Connealy’s team has aggressively inspected all 104 ammonium nitrate facilities in the state. He’s holding town hall meetings in the 68 counties with a fertilizer plant and plans to conduct follow-up inspections this spring. But a can-do attitude goes only so far. The inspections are voluntary, their scope is limited and Connealy has no enforcement authority. All he can do is plead and prod—something he readily acknowledges.

“I guess if they didn’t correct [a problem identified in the inspection] by the time we come back, then that tells us we need to encourage them more strongly,” Connealy says. “I can’t make them do it.”

Still, I was curious what Connealy was turning up in his inspections. Through the state open records process, I requested a handful of the most recent inspection reports. Within a couple of weeks, the fire marshal’s office sent me a set of heavily redacted documents. Missing was any information on how the fertilizer is stored, site security, descriptions of the buildings and any hazardous findings. The agency even blacked out the names of local fire departments and the precise locations of fertilizer plants, though that information could be gleaned from other unredacted details. With all the secrecy, the reports were worthless to me and to any citizens trying to figure out what might be happening in their backyards.

After an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office, I obtained more information from the reports. However, the AG had ordered the fire marshal to redact the names and addresses of the facilities. Only by looking at the two versions together was I able to get a full picture of what the inspectors found—and where.

I examined three reports, which is admittedly a small sample, but they still made apparent that some fertilizer plants are vulnerable in the same way West’s was. None of the three facilities—Standley Feed & Seed locations in Madisonville and Iola, and Anderson Fertilizer in Carthage—had sprinkler systems to suppress fires. Only one of them even had a portable fire extinguisher. Two of the facilities had electrical problems, including exposed and damaged wires. All three are housed in combustible wooden structures, just like in West, and a top concern for Connealy.

The Anderson facility, the inspection report notes, has dry vegetation around it, which could help a fire “rapidly spread into the building.”

Standley Feed in Iola is located 500 yards from two “public assembly buildings” and three-tenths of a mile from a school. The one in Madisonville is planted on the town square, across the street from the county courthouse. The report states that Standley no longer plans to carry ammonium nitrate, and Connealy says his inspectors will follow up to confirm.

But absent new laws and regulations, it’s not clear how Connealy or anyone else is going to minimize hazards. Bobby Anderson, the owner of Anderson Fertilizer, says he fixed the electrical problems identified by the state fire marshal but has no plans to replace his wooden storage bins, install fire suppression systems or make any other expensive and, in his mind, unnecessary changes. “Let me tell you, a fire extinguisher is not going to do any good when a nitrate bin blows up,” he said. “I’ve got children, wife, parents, grandbaby right there within 200 or 300 yards. We live there on the farm, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody.”

Anderson says he’s not going to let fears about West or new regulations push him out of a business he’s been in for 29 years. “Shit, I ain’t getting out,” he told me. “Until they quit making the same damn stuff I’m gonna keep using it because it’s the best source of nitrogen there is.”

 

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Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.