Gov. Rick Perry visits with first responders in West, TX. (Texas Governor Rick Perry/ Flickr)

The Lessons from West


A version of this story ran in the August 2013 issue.

More than three months have passed since the West fertilizer plant caught fire and exploded, killing 15 and injuring more than 200. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how the tragedy occurred and the regulatory failings that contributed to the disaster.

The revelations have come in dribs and drabs, from media reports to hearings at the Legislature and Congress. It’s difficult to pinpoint one thing that could have prevented the disaster, but that’s in part because there were so many holes in the system and so much blame to go around at the local, state and federal level. But given the evidence, I think it’s clear that West wasn’t an unavoidable act of God. It was a man-made industrial crime. A few examples:

• The West Fertilizer Company didn’t tell local emergency responders until 2012 that it was holding hazardous chemicals, six years after it started handling large quantities of ammonium nitrate.

• But even after the company told a local emergency-planning committee about the ammonium nitrate, the first responders in McLennan County never trained for a fertilizer explosion. The West Volunteer Fire Department never received the federally required report from the company about the contents of the plant.

• Without training or knowledge of the risks, the firefighters—many of them volunteers who died in the blast—were unprepared.

• Like 70 percent of Texas’ 254 counties, McLennan County was prohibited until 2010 from adopting a fire code that would set standards for buildings and provide for inspections.

• Texas allows fertilizer plants to operate without any liability insurance.

• The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t inspected the plant since 1985; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had inspected it once, in 2006, for odor complaints; and the Office of the State Chemist had inspected the plant four times in 2012 but only to see if the fertilizer was secure from thieves or vandals.

• For more than a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency ignored a recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to classify ammonium nitrate as an “extremely hazardous” chemical, which would require the company to have a detailed disaster-prevention and emergency-response plan.

Imagine for a second that the West fertilizer plant had regular inspections backed up by steep fines; that state or federal agencies had made sure the paperwork had gotten to the local firefighters; that the community had been informed of the risks of the plant. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the loss of life could’ve been diminished, maybe prevented altogether? That’s the conclusion reached by the Waco Tribune-Herald.

“What blew a huge hole in the lives of West residents was probably preventable,” the paper editorialized in June. “As much as we all hate regulation in Texas, there are times when it’s appropriate. The lives lost and the damage left behind are surely evidence of that.”

But the response from Texas Republican leaders has been quite different. Their attitude from the get-go has been, basically, “Meh.”

Gov. Rick Perry: “[People] through their elected officials clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.”

Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: “We have hundreds of facilities like this across the state and fortunately they don’t explode very often.”

State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels): “I think we’re doing a good job. Just periodically something happens that’s not predictable.”

This isn’t even the usual linguistic dodge of “mistakes were made.” Some Texas leaders have responded to the West tragedy with an attitude of, essentially, “shit happens.” So far, elected leaders in Austin and Washington have done nothing to prevent future West-type disasters. The only regulatory change? The State Fire Marshal’s Office has said it might create an online database of chemical plants in Texas. Not a bad idea, but both Greenpeace and The Texas Tribune have already constructed similar sites. By leaving the obvious errors in the oversight system unaddressed, our elected leaders are accepting that such a disaster will happen again.

Regulation can be burdensome or excessive. But when dozens of lives can be saved through common-sense changes felt almost exclusively by a small number of companies, it’s worth the cost.