Two days after the Boston Marathon bombing, a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas went up in an horrendous explosion, killing 14, injuring 200, destroying dozens of buildings and creating a crater 90 feet wide.
On the air and in the papers, the Texas disaster played second fiddle to the Marathon bombing—perhaps understandably, since the bombing in Boston raised the spectre of terrorism, while the fertilizer plant explosion and fire fell into a category we generally find less frightening: industrial accidents.
But it’s worth noticing that the incident that became the media also-ran killed more people than the Boston bombing, and injured as many.
And in a very different way than the Boston disaster, the Texas explosion involved a failure of anti-terrorism measures.
Reuters has reported that the fertilizer plant was out of compliance with a rule requiring it to tell the Department of Homeland Security that it was storing more than the amount of deadly ammonium nitrate that’s supposed to be reported to the agency. Because ammonium nitrate can be used to make bombs, any facility storing more than 400 pounds of it is supposed to report the fact to the DHS.
Texas state records from 2012 show that late last year, 270 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored at the West Fertilizer Plant—1,350 times the amount that should have triggered the requirement that the chemical be reported to the DHS under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act, a law designed to keep large stores of chemicals from being turned into de facto bombs. When the DHS is informed about such a large store of a volatile substance, it can offer guidelines about securing the explosive that may make the facility that holds it and the surrounding environment safer.
The West Fertilizer plant had no blast walls and no sprinkler systems.
Ammonium nitrate has been turned into a bomb before. The chemical, mixed with fuel oil, was used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. West Fertilizer was storing 100 times the amount that caused that explosion.
West Fertilizer operators did report their holdings of the chemical to the Texas Department of State Health Services in 2012, but neither they nor the Texas agency reported the enormous volume of ammonium nitrate to the DHS. Said Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, “...we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”
West Fertilizer was also storing volatile anhydrous ammonia onsite; last summer, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined the company $10,000 for arranging to transport it with no security plan, and cited it for failing to put proper labeling on ammonia tanks.