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April 25, 2013

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There's something I just can't wrap my head around:


The company said the plant had no alarms, automatic shutoff system, firewall or sprinkler system.


Every hotel in this country, no matter how crummy, has !$#@ smoke detectors in place. Many of them have sprinkler systems too. What kind of moron builds or owns a chemical processing plant that doesn't have smoke alarms? Or sprinklers? Or blast walls?

I mean, every place I've lived in had smoke alarms by law. Does anyone really think their bedroom is safer than a plant that makes explosives? WTF?

I can understand sociopathy. I can understand actively hating your workers and wanting them to die (actually I don't understand that). But I can't understand how you can be so stupid as a business owner as to not have smoke alarms while still being smart enough to run your business. I just don't get it.

In addition to the nearly five million pounds of granulated ammonium nitrate fertilizer, NH4NO3, the same fertilizer plant is the site for two huge pressure vessels, storing hundreds of tons of anhydrous ammonia, NH3. This form of nitrogen fertilizer is produced by compressing pure ammonia gas into a liquid, and then storing it at 250 psi and/or refrigerated below -33 C. It's tricky stuff: intensely caustic, intensely poisonous, intensely cold.

Adding liquid water to liquid anhydrous (e.g. after a spill or valve failure) instantly produces a violent exothermic chemical reaction that is not, of itself, properly a fire or explosion. It's quite possible that a small improperly-handled spill of anydrous was the trigger for the blast in West.

Evaporated ammonia vapor is dense, and spreads out close to the ground. Exposure to or inhalation of concentrations of the evaporated gas greater than 1000 ppm is immediately life-threatening.
Even had nothing else gone wrong, a tank rupture that released hundreds of tons of anhydrous ammonia could easily have produced mass casualties in West. However, by some miracle, the two main storage tanks seem to have weathered the blast.

This catastrophe was the direct result of a complete lack of proper regulation, proper inspection, and above all, proper zoning. All of these are intentional in Texas, part of the state's bidness-friendly environment. Governor Perry's proudly declares that, unlike the regulatory hell of California, Texas is "wide open for business".

The owners of the West plant seem to have been Perry campaign contributors. It's a damned shame that neither they nor Perry were on hand at the plant to be part of the blazing success of their favored policies.

Hm, which came first, the plant, or the schools? It makes a difference who you ought to blame, rather like the person who builds their home at the end of the airport runway, and then complains of the noise.

But I've yet to see any of the coverage address this crucial issue.

Which came first?

The government closest to the people.

The entire place was zoned for stupid.

Taxpayer money could have been further saved by situating the schools inside the fertilizer plant, the better to inculcate the values of smaller, dumber government and the perils of excessive and effective regulation.

Charred schools, not charter schools.

Do we s'pose it could be something along the lines of what was suggested here vis-a-vis the un- and mis-regulated Philly abortion abattoir -- regulatory capture?

"It makes a difference who you ought to blame, rather like the person who builds their home at the end of the airport runway, and then complains of the noise."

I'm sure previous explosions at the plant were quite noisy and irritating.

I'm also quite sure the owners and operators of the plant leafleted the denizens of the surrounding area and regaled them with detailed explanations of the reasons for ignoring all precautions at the plant.

Transparency reigned. No one was forced to live or work in or near the plant. They could have moved to some other town in Texas, or adjoining states and been blown to smithereens there instead.

Welp, more like the person who builds their home on the end of the airport runway (there must have been a builder, a realtor smiling like a maniac, and a zoning inspector or two in the chain of bullsh*t, but whose counting?) and then complains when the FAA ignores airlines dumping jet fuel down their chimneys, and then extolling the practice as a proud defeat of the overbearing regulatory state.

Or more like the parents of butchered five-year-olds complaining when the neighbors near their kids' schools are permitted to have military-style weapons, when everyone knows the neighbors had the knives, SUVs, and household chemicals to do the job just as well, so what's the beef?

Everything is like something else in some way.

How come Texas wasn't shut down like Boston until it could be ascertained that the perps were at least in custody and not operating other lethal businesses in the State?

My question is: This is Texas (Waco, like Broward County, Florida -- a nightmare factory). Texans have lots of guns for self-defense and, so we're told, to overthrow oppressive government. Now that both of those stipulations have been fulfilled, why haven't the survivors in this little town found the plant owners, operators, and supervisors, the city fathers (or do they just have city cousins in them parts), maybe a county supervisor or two, and hell, why not Governor Rick Perry (on his knees, praying for rain and secession, surrounded by shot coyotes), and their state and federal representatives (looking up, startled, from the latest budget cutting proposals) and gunned the motherf*cker vermin down.

Individual responsibility discharged and taken by free citizens.

Well, I suppose the plaintiff attorneys counseled calm, given the expected payouts.

Drones. Just a thought.

"The entire place was zoned for stupid."

That's a bit harsh, but I suppose that there were a few zoning variances here and there.

Locations of schools and smoke alarms are just the kinds of things that people who know very little but have a narrative that cannot be denied bring up that almost always produce pointless sideshows, but great short term politcal theater, because they have nothing to do at all with what actually happened.

Presumably, at least two things are going on right now. First, trained cause-and-origin experts are interviewing employees from managment to shipping/receiving to janitors and cross checking their statements to find out what was stored, where, how, etc. Second, this same class of expert, along with forensic electrical engineers, are trying to find out where the fire started, i.e. the point of origin, and, if they can, they will work backward from there to find out the potential causes.

The fire preceded the explosion. Explosive stuff blows up when exposed to high enough heat. Fact of life. A fire in an ice cream plant is just a fire. A fire in a chemical plant is something else. Not to rain on anyone's parade, but many fires are electrical in nature. Over time, a properly wired but older structure will develop occult degradation that can result in anything from roof leaks to stressed wiring (or both) that cannot be discovered because the location is inaccessible.

How much HazMat training did the local volunteer fire department have? Likely, it was rudimentary and focused on road spills of petro-based materials origin, which is the most likely scenario they would face. You can't plan for every eventuality. The best fire department in the world likely wouldn't have fared any better unless they would have known at the time the plant was going to explode and decided to back off and let it go. But, usually, the crystal balls and ouiji boards don't work that well. So, it is speculation to imagine a materially different outcome.

Also to be kept in mind is that the explosion may have so disturbed the scene that the forensic investigation will be inconclusive. This happens a lot, on a much smaller scale (imagine an electrical fire in a residence in which the resident had an oxygen machine--the fire department wouldn't know this and would fight the fire--the scene is a forensic mess and the risk to the firefighters is similar but on a smaller scale).

Again, not to rain on anyone's parade, but it usually isn't a matter of managment--who works at the same location--being indifferent to its employees health, safety, etc. In fact, the most common recurring factor in industrial and work-related accidents--in my experience-- is the injured or dead employee being a relative new-hire and his/her immediate boss, also a grunt, not taking the time to give necessary instructions, or the injured/dead person not taking the time to think through his/her task.

Yes, my experience is anecdotal, but it consists of several thousand anecdotes, so it's more than personal narrative. I've also seen acts of managerial indifference and stupidity borrdering on criminal neglect, but the vast majority of these cases involve small, low margine construction subcontractors who, incredibly, view Mexican labor as a fungible, expendable commodity. There's your narrative, for corporate perfidy, but it's not the corporations you might have in mind.

Human error is frequently a factor, but more bad news: it is usually a grunt taking a shortcut that sets things in motion (as in the case I just unsuccessfully defended in a rather spectacular fashion) and not the end result of senior management foregoing a needed safety improvement (there was a clear violation of written company policy in my case). I said *usually*, not *always*. Gross indifference can't be ruled out and it has to be considered, but the key to any productive investigation is beginning with an open mind and letting the actual evidence drive the conclusions.

There will be much mind reading, second guessing and informed speculation by people who know nothing or next to it. Months from now a report will come out. We'll see what it says and, if it fails to fit the narrative, whether that is addressed here and elsewhere or left to fall forever into the memory hole.

Locations of schools and smoke alarms are just the kinds of things that people who know very little but have a narrative that cannot be denied bring up that almost always produce pointless sideshows

Do you think it is acceptable for a factory that makes explosive to have no smoke alarms? To have no sprinkler systems?

Do you think it is acceptable for you a school or a hotel to have no smoke alarms?

I get that older buildings can have fires. But the point of safety systems like "smoke alarms" or "sprinkler systems" or "blast walls" is to detect and stop small fires before they destroy the town. I'm just floored by the fact that I have more and better safety control systems IN MY KITCHEN than a chemical plant making explosives did. It does not compute.

And I wouldn't harp on this except for the fact that the company admitted this to the WSJ.

I have to say, it doesn't matter which came first, the schools/homes or the plant, they shouldn't be sited so close together. This is simple common sense: dangerous facilities that can go boom must be isolated from residential structures. I get that a lot of Texas towns don't like zoning and I get that zoning is really problematic (I can talk for hours about how just how problematic), but this one aspect of zoning is just common sense.

Mckinney,

You can put all the lipstick you like on this pig, but the fish still rots from the head.

Regards,

I have to say, it doesn't matter which came first, the schools/homes or the plant, they shouldn't be sited so close together.

It does matter when deciding who to stand next to while wearing your "I'm with stupid" t-shirt. In that sense, I agree with Brett. I just don't know who he's responding to, given that Doc's post pretty well covered the bases as to where the blame might lie.

What is certain is that some number of people made some really stupid decisions at some (number of) point(s) in order for those schools and homes to be there, if I can be so redundant.

Perhaps the outcome might have been the same even if the missing precautions mentioned had been in place. Then again, maybe not. Sometimes sprinklers put out fires. And, like McKinney wrote, the fire preceded the explosion.

It's not just about the specific outcame that came about. It's also about the things you find out because of it. Deficiencies can be found even in the absence of a disaster, so the possiblity that those deficiencies didn't cause the disaster doesn't mean they weren't deficiencies.

"I have to say, it doesn't matter which came first, the schools/homes or the plant, they shouldn't be sited so close together."

Of course it matters. It doesn't matter in deciding there's blame to assign, but it matters in deciding who to assign it to. You don't blame the explosive manufacturer for locating his plant next to a high school if the high school was built after the explosives plant. You blame the people who sited the school.

So, yes, it really does matter which came first.

Brett, either way, wouldn't a significant portion of the blame go to the Planning Commission, which approved whichever was built second? (Assuming that they have Planning Commissions, or the equivalent, in Texas; never having lived there, I don't know. Some government body which does zoning and decides whether proposed types of facilities can be built in particular areas.)

Yes, you still have to blame either the company or the school board, depending on which built second. But one of the reasons that we have Planning Commissions is that the incentives for those who want to build something are different than for those who are going to have to live with the consequences.

You don't blame the explosive manufacturer for locating his plant next to a high school if the high school was built after the explosives plant.

Not necessarily.

What happens if the explosives plant used to be light manufacturing not making explosives and then switched to explosives? The school is looking to move in and ask the plant what they make and they say "eh, stuff". The school can't legally compel the plant to inform them about what they're working on. It seems like the plant would still be responsible in that case.


Ultimately, safe siting can only work if there's a body empowered to legally compel people to explain what the hell they're doing in their facility and legally prevent them from doing more dangerous stuff in the future. Maybe that body is a planning board or zoning commission, maybe it is an insurance company that is on the hook for huge damages if your factory flattens a town because we require that every facility have an externalities insurance policy. But there's no way it can work in a world without that powerful external third party independent of the school and the plant.

the market will sort this out

You don't blame the explosive manufacturer for locating his plant next to a high school if the high school was built after the explosives plant. You blame the people who sited the school.

I think you can blame the explosive manufacturer for having orders of magnitude more explosives in his plant than he had reported to regulators.

I also think you can blame the local planning authorities (if there are any) for not researching what "fertilizer plant" meant before locating a school, housing, and a nursing home in close proximity to it. It's harder to blame the residents of those homes: I'm sure they thought that if it was dangerous to live there, certainly developers wouldn't have been allowed to build, right?

... right? But no, because zoning and land use controls are tools of paternalistic liberalism and we should make people pay for their own stupid mistakes.

This from a link at Balloon Juice:

"The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger. Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done. And there was little chance that regulators would learn about the problems without the company reporting them: Not only had the Occupational Safety and Health Administration not inspected the plant since 1985 but also, because of underfunding, OSHA can inspect plants like the one in West on average only once every 129 years…."

My legal sources tell me the explosion may be protected under the Second Amendment.

In related news, this:

"The Heritage Foundation and Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity presented the second annual Breitbart Award to Michelle Malkin, syndicated columnist and Fox News Channel contributor....The Breitbart Award honors those who advocate for the truth — a quality that Malkin exemplifies. As the founder of three successful conservative blogs — michellemalkin.com, Hot Air (now owned by Salem Communications), and Twitchy — has changed the way Americans consume media. Malkin dedicates her life to tackling the issues others often shy away from."

Via Kevin Drum and related to this thread because Malkin's award for truth-telling gives me free rein to write any damned fool-thing I like.

She "has changed the way American consumers consume media."

Years ago, there was a gorilla at the Pittsburgh Zoo who was so bored in captivity that he would spend his waking hours repeatedly swinging on the tire in his cage, making himself nauseous and then he would do a full frontal upchuck.

Then he'd eat the product. All day

So, yeah, Malkin has changed the way American consume their media.

The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate...

That sounds like a convenient narrative put forth by people who don't really know anything.

I read an interview with a long-time West TX school board member; the plant was there first, and the town apparently allowed the neighborhood growth near it and sited the school because that's where the water and sewer had already been laid, and why not? He said that the hazard from the plant was never considered, or recognized.

I wrote a long comment last night, with a couple links; apparently it's held up in moderation. Could someone with the mana please approve it?

>> The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate..

> sounds like a convenient narrative

It's garbled, anyway.

At some tonnage of ammonium nitrate, plant sites are subject to Federal regulation. With nearly five million pounds of ammonium nitrate, the West TX plant had 1350 times the regulatory threshold. Because they did not report the presence of more ammonium nitrate than the regulatory threshold, they were never inspected for compliance with the applicable regs.

This particular plant had been cited twice in the past decade for infractions of the chemical-handling regs, and paid slap-on-the-wrist fines of a few thousand dollars each time.

I suppose that there were a few zoning variances here and there.

As nearly as I can determine, there was no zoning at all.


> held up in moderation


Never mind. I see it now.

joel: You see it now because I found it in the spam trap and just got it out. It wasn't even officially "held for moderation".

But the point of safety systems like "smoke alarms" or "sprinkler systems" or "blast walls" is to detect and stop small fires before they destroy the town.

A smoke alarm tells you that you have a fire. They got that part, which is why the fire department is on scene. If no one is around to hear the smoke alarm, it's the tree falling in the forest. Sprinkler systems are, relatively speaking, late comers in terms of code requirements and older buildings are typically grand-fathered because the cost of retroactively installing a sprinkler systems is often prohibitive. Whether a sprinkler system would have prevented the fire and resulting explosion is unknown, since you would need 100% wall-to-wall coverage to assure that every potential fire location is covered. And then you have the intensity of the blaze and the composition of the flammable materials, some of which cannot be extinguished by water. Turb, you probably live in relatively new construction.

That sounds like a convenient narrative put forth by people who don't really know anything.

Yes, that is exactly what it is. If you follow the link from Balloon Juice, you will learn that if one holds more than X amount of ammonium nitrate, one is obliged to inform the Department of Homeland Security who will the, presumably, verify that the possessor is not a bomb builder. DHS doesn't do plant safety inspections, and there may or may not have been a relevant, causal OSHA violation.

But, hey, no need to let objective investigators determine the cause. Some of already know what *really* happened, even if the actual details have yet to be determined.

As nearly as I can determine, there was no zoning at all.

There seldom is in Texas, Dallas being one exception of which I am aware. Zoning--or possibly just common sense--is certainly relevant to how schools were so closely located to a fertilizer plant. The principle issues, however, are cause-in-fact for the fire, followed by cause-in-fact of the explosion, and then, depending on the first two determinations, an assessment of legal responsibility. These are presently unknown. Yet, some in the reality-based, we-believe-in-science community already know the answer.

So, a couple of things strike me.

First, if I understand correctly, the plant was not a manufacturer, but a distributor. And the material was not primarily an explosive, but agricultural fertilizer.

So, there's that.

That said, is there a claim being made here that, if the plant was built first and the schools second, that the plant owners and operators are blameless, because they were there first?

Do they have any obligation to bring to the attention of the town, or the zoning board (assuming there is one), or the school board, or the builder, or the community at large, the fact that they are storing large quantities of potentially dangerous materials quite close to intended public and residential buildings?

"Oh, you're gonna build a school there? You might want to know that we're storing tons of anhydrous ammonia on site."

That conversation never happened? And it never occurred to anyone that it ought to happen?

The lack of local oversight here boggles my mind, but I live in the people's republic of MA. Different strokes, I guess, but if it were my neighborhood I'd want somebody's @ss in a sling.

I have no idea how the rules are in Texas but over here potentially explosive solids have to be heavily compartmentalized, so every single explosion has to be managable and there cannot be a chain reaction. For ammonium nitrate this is the case since it became known that it can explode without use of an ignition charge (it was originally assumed that it could not). So, the problem is not necessarily the amount stored on site but the way it was stored.

[sarcasm]One could of course apply the logic of opponents of sex education here. Sprinklers, smoke detectors etc. are harmful since they create a false aura of safety leading to people getting sloppy with catastrophic results. Educating people about safety measures is as bad since they will start to believe that they know the risk and can manage it which again can only lead to desaster. Uneducated people with no access to safety devices on the other hand will be so totally terrified of the unknown unfightable dangers around them that they will not do anything that could be remotely risky. Keeping as many innocents (or children as a weak substitute) around will increase that healthy fear and thus increase safety. Not to forget mandatory guns without flame suppressors.[/sarcasm]

the cost of retroactively installing a sprinkler systems is often prohibitive.

Probably cheaper than rebuilding half the town.

Hindsight, of course, but some things aren't actually all that hard to anticipate.

I'm not sure that sprinkler systems are a good idea at a plant that handles anhydrous; at least in the area in which ammonia is handled.

As I tried to make clear by linking to a video of a fire department demonstration, pouring water into anhydrous produces a violent reaction, and the reaction products get hot. My understanding is that they can get _very_ hot in some circumstances.

every single explosion has to be managable and there cannot be a chain reaction.

Sorry, prohibitively expensive.

Here's a wild idea - if something is prohibitively expensive to do with an acceptable margin of safety, then you don't do it.

And for "acceptable margin of safety" please read "not requiring other people to unknowingly assume the burden of risk for your actions". Or, to put a point on it, storing over a thousand times the legal amount of a dangerous chemical and not telling anyone about it.

The solution to "prohibitively expensive" is not "shift the burden of the risk to the other guy".

the cost of retroactively installing a sprinkler systems is often prohibitive.

I think it likely that having and following prudent safety standards at that plant would have been "job-destroying regulation". That is, I have no trouble believing that the plant *could not* be profitable if it was reasonably safe.

The question is, where is the point where the risk of death & destruction is worse than losing a few dozen jobs, in Texas?

From here:

The fertilizer plant that blew up in Texas last week warned state and local officials but not federal agencies that it had 270 tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate on site, according to regulatory records.

So, a disclosure was made, just not to the feds.

Over to you, state and local regulators.

joel hanes, that's the reason why over here the fire department wants to know first which fire extinguishing agent they can use before they go out fighting the fire. And sprinklers does not necessarily mean water. One of the greatest dangers workers face in this environment is to get trapped by the automatic lockdown systems and then killed by the non aqueous anti-fire stuff (suffocated and/or shockfrozen).

I'm not sure that sprinkler systems are a good idea at a plant that handles anhydrous; at least in the area in which ammonia is handled.

are there chemical fire-suppressants that could be 'sprinkled' in those areas?

(i assume anyone qualified to design a fire-control system for a place like that would be familiar with what substances can put out fires on different materials.)

Probably cheaper than rebuilding half the town.

Hindsight, of course, but some things aren't actually all that hard to anticipate.

Implicit in this statement are these: that the explosion was foreseeable and that a sprinkler system would have prevented it. Neither of these are known and, as JH has indicated below, water may be contraindicated.

So, a disclosure was made, just not to the feds.

Over to you, state and local regulators.

And here, the implicit assertion is that, had the feds been notified, in their usual and customary, highly efficient fashion, they would have promptly sent qualified inspectors who would have counted bags of fertilizer, devised a clever and cost effective means of eliminating the risk of not just an explosion, but the cause of the fire itself, thus creating a non-event. Like in the case of the Deep Water Horizon.

The question is, where is the point where the risk of death & destruction is worse than losing a few dozen jobs, in Texas?

Or, on a larger scale, if the cost of eliminating all potentially preventable risks is the loss of all jobs, everywhere, then are we better off shutting down our economy entirely and dying of starvation rather than coping with the isolated tragedy that is an inherent part of an industrial society?

As I note above, along with JH, there is zero evidence a sprinkler system would have made things better and some indication it would have made things worse. Further, sprinkler systems aren't the only modern Building Code features that are safety-related. If you think every business and residence built before the current code iterations ought to be required to retroactively become code compliant in every respect, put that up for a vote. And good luck. You would be turning countless people out of jobs and out of their homes.

Doc, a cost imposed on one is a cost imposed on all. Is your home fire-proof? Does your home have a sprinkler system? If it does not, would having one be safer? Is it better to risk your family by exposing it to a horrifying death by radiant heat or to pay for your child's college? And why should your family be allowed to make that decision? Shouldn't that be the state's call?

I don't mean to personalize this to you, but rather to illustrate that it is a lot easier to lay requirements on other folks, far, far away than it is when simultaneously imposing them on yourself (and everyone else, who might or might not agree with your concept of risk mitigation) where you personally have to front the immediate cost of your ideas.

Which is not to say that, after an actual investigation, there may not be compelling evidence of low, middle or high level, or all of the above, neglect or even gross neglect. We don't freaking know! That is the point: memes and narratives and bad information is driving this discussion, not the actual facts.

Implicit in this statement are these: that the explosion was foreseeable

If you store large amounts of explosive materials, it is in fact foreseeable that they may explode.

Actuarily, some such collection, somewhere, *will* explode, at some time.

That's why people put preventive measures in place.

If the owners and operators did not have appropriate safety measures in place, then I find that objectionable. I don't find the argument that doing so would have been expensive to be persuasive.

If you can't afford to do something in a way that doesn't shift the risk onto other people, then you shouldn't do it.

Or, to put it another way, the cost of making sure that what you do doesn't blow other people up properly belongs to you, the person that wants to do it.

Too expensive? Don't do it. Or, at a minimum, give folks who might be affected by it a heads up, so they can make their own choices.

What the hell is hard to grasp about that?

And here, the implicit assertion is that, had the feds been notified, in their usual and customary, highly efficient fashion, they would have promptly sent qualified inspectors...

Actually my point there was to give a fair acknowledgement that the owners and operators of the plant hadn't entirely neglected their obligation to let folks know what they had on hand. Full stop.

If NH4NO3 is produced anywhere, explosions have to be anticipated, that's the nature of the stuff not tea-leaf reading. And NH4NO3 blowing up factories or transport vehicles together with their surroundings has happened so often in the last 100 years that anyone not taking countermeasures should not be allowed anywhere near (unless he orders others to do the 'without' for him. Then (s)he should be forced have to his/her office right on top of the storage area).
As has been said by several people already: there are gaseous and liquid fire suppressants that are not water based and can be dispersed with sprinkleroid systems. About the only stuff that cannot be handled that way is burning metal (that needs solid inert material, e.g. sand, to suppress). There is quite a lot of stuff that cannot be extinguished safely with water when burning and this is something teached to chemistry students (and I guess firefighters) at the very beginning (and with regular reminders).

Or, on a larger scale, if the cost of eliminating all potentially preventable risks is the loss of all jobs, everywhere, then are we better off shutting down our economy entirely and dying of starvation rather than coping with the isolated tragedy that is an inherent part of an industrial society?

"If" is carrying a lot of weight there, Kemosabe. On it's face, this line of argument is so incoherent as to defy belief. I mean, obviously, the common requirement for fire suppression hoods in restaurants (they don't use water....superheated grease and water don't mix well) has so burdened the food industry that industry that we cannot find a place to eat out anywhere, right?

As for job safety, here's how it works: (1.) It is relatively inexpensive; (2.) The regulations and effective enforcement save lives. Last I checked, conservatives claimed to place a high value on life...well, at least prior to birth.

As for instilling an effective safety culture, I'd recommend to you that you pick up a copy of the March '13, issue of "Construction Executive". You might actually learn something.

I was wrong about the zoning.
"the West plant received a special permit to be located less than 3,000 feet from a school. That school was forced to evacuate due to a “concerning fire” at the plant in February of this year."

This looks to me like someone's going to be in deep shit:
"The EPA issued a $2,300 fine for the West plant in 2006 for failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards. It wasn’t fined again after that, and in its report to the EPA, the plant stated “no” under the question of whether there were fire or explosive risks. It said the worst possible scenario would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t harm anyone."

Both from this factual and succinct article:
http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/04/22/1904381/how-the-west-texas-fertilizer-plant-slipped-through-the-regulatory-cracks/
(Hoping a raw URL doesn't put me in the spam trap)

McKinney,

For your edification, here's the link: http://www.constructionexec.com/Issues/March_2013.aspx

Good companies take these matters seriously. There are also, if you care to read it, real economic and business benefits to an effective safety culture.

I'm not quite sure where the can't stops and the cant begins.

Doc, a cost imposed on one is a cost imposed on all.

I mutter that to myself every time I read my credit card statement.

Good companies take these matters seriously. There are also, if you care to read it, real economic and business benefits to an effective safety culture.

I'm not quite sure where the can't stops and the cant begins.

A point I have made here and elsewhere. This is nothing new to me. I do lots of construction accident cases which, BTW, is not the topic at hand. The topic at hand, at least that I was addressing, is requiring a retroactive placement of a sprinkler system as a matter of policy and cost, not running a safe construction site.

"The EPA issued a $2,300 fine for the West plant in 2006 for failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards.

What next needs to be demonstrated is that a federally approved risk management plan would have produced a different outcome. Does anyone have the link to the actual federal requirements for a risk management plan? If it's filling out a form, as JH's quote perhaps implies, well, so much for the efficacy of regulation.

What next needs to be demonstrated is that a federally approved risk management plan would have produced a different outcome.

Insofar as (apparently) those companies who do comply with these requirements may tend to take safety seriously to begin with, any data gathered in this regard may suffer from self-selection bias.

In the course of researching my comments, I've watched a couple firefighter training videos for anhydrous plants. (One from Ontario, one from Iowa)

In these training materials, it is an emphasized duty of the firefighters to proactively visit anhydrous storage sites, and to review in-situ and with the plant operators the planned-for incident scenarios, so that they know exactly what hazards are present, have examined the actual controls and safety features on which they will rely during an emergency, and have reviewed and agreed to a response protocol for the kinds of incidents for which the site is at risk.

I will endeavor to find an answer to McTex's request for the substance of Federal RMP requirements.

This URL will show you the actual risk management plan filed by the West plant in June of 2011.
http://www.rtknet.org/db/rmp/rmp.php?facility_id=100000135597&database=rmp&detail=3&datype=T

It addresses only the anhydrous; as nearly as I can tell from a Reuters article, ammonium nitrate is not covered by the RMP requirement, and is instead supposed to be reported under a program called "Tier 11", which seems to be a system of notifying local responders.

A smoke alarm tells you that you have a fire. They got that part, which is why the fire department is on scene.

Do you have a cite that says that (1) there was a smoke alarm on site and (2) it went off? Because I can point you to a WSJ report in which the company claims that there were no alarms.

Also, would you mind answering the questions I asked you at my 9:45 comment?

joel, If you'd like to make a front page post about this, please send it on to me at libjpn*at*gmail. I'd love to have something with all the links. If McT wanted to make it a point-counterpoint thing, that would be cool as well.

I hope the company that owns the factory gets sued out of existance.

A smoke alarm tells you that you have a fire.

Let's see here. Flat landscape. Small town. HUGE BILLOWING SMOKE FROM A FIRE VISIBLE FOR MILES AND MILES.

It's a miracle.

I hope the company that owns the factory gets sued out of existance.

With annual sales of $1-2.5million, you will undoubtedly get your wish. Their insurance will never come anywhere close to covering the damages. In the grand scheme of things, this little outfit doesn't have a pot to piss in.

Yet, we grant these yahoos tax breaks, build their roads and energy infrastructure, and let them limit their liability behind the corporate veil. As far as persons go, they have it pretty damnned good.

But apparently asking them to abide by a few regulations they may or may not find "costly" is simply beyond the pale.

lp, I am flattered beyond words, but I'm satisified with the way things are going.

The defects in the reporting are starting to fascinate me.

I quoted a Reuters article to the effect that the RMP claimed "the worst possible scenario would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn't harm anyone".

But now we've read the actual RMP, and the actual scenario envisioned is the release and evaporation of the contents of one entire anhydrous tank (over 13 tons) within ten minutes. No estimate of expected casualties from that scenario is asked for or given in the RMP. The "wouldn't harm anyone" bit looks as if it's taken from a completely different section, in which the company is asked how many people been harmed by anhydrous spills at the site within the last five years.

So the Reuters reporting substantially misrepresents the information given by the company.

Given a slight breeze from the north, I'd guess that such a quick release of thirteen tons of anhydrous has the potential to kill or gravely injure the entire north side of the town -- an area that includes all three of the community's schools.

If I can flatter you some more, joel, I made (well, suggested that) my wife read your 4:26 AM comment so I could say, "See! This is why I'm always reading this blog. How many people do you see writing stuff like that on facebook?" I mean, I go on facebook. I'm just not always sure why.

That aside, I have to think there's a bit of space between doing a reasonably good job of being safe but having an accident occur anyway, because nothing in this world is perfect, and being horribly negligent.

I spend a fair amount of my professional time complaining about people attempting futile risk avoidance rather than risk management, so I get that whole dynamic. Yes, you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. But you don't have to throw them across the room just to save a few seconds.

This looks very, very bad. Maybe it looks a lot worse than it really is. Either way, no one here is preventing a full investigation.

Greater involvement by the feds may not have prevented this disaster, but I don't think anyone was trying to say it would have. I think the point was that state and local measures appear to have sucked (eggs!).

Here's my first shot a narrative for this event. Unlike my earlier comments, I'm not here striving to be factual; I'm answering the question "How can such a thing have been allowed to happen?"

It could have happened like this:

The company was a privately-owned medium-scale anyhdrous ammonia (pressurized liquid fertilizer) distributor with sales of around a million dollars per year. They did not normally handle ammonium nitrate, so it didn't matter that they weren't really set up for it.

Unlike many Texas towns, West had some zoning ordinances, and the outskirts of the north end of town were originally quite suitable for light industry. The anhydrous distributorship was sited just outside the city limits, maybe half a mile from the closest residences, where a good truck road met a rail siding, and the city had run water and sewer right to the city limits; a petroleum distributorship was sited nearby.

Such anhydrous plants are regulated by four or five Federal and state agencies. The owners of West Fertilizer were not always perfect about regulatory compliance, but they weren't foot-draggers either, and when notified of infractions, they duly added safety equipment and filed the required paperwork. In particular, EPA demanded yearly Risk Management Plans for the anhydrous, and Texas demanded yearly Tier 11 reports of the chemicals present on the site, and these were timely and accurately filed. Although the RMP envisioned a possible large-scale anyhdrous spill, West Fertilizer employed the anhdydrous industry's conventional measures to prevent such an incident, and the possiblity seemed remote.

Years went by; West Fertilizer compiled a good safety record, without any casualties or reported spills. Everyone knew that they handled anhydrous (one can hardly miss the distinctive pressure-vessel trucks and trailers), but the owners were locals, and well-liked, and the community trusted them. They didn't get rich; the fertilizer business doesn't have high margins. With sales of a million or so per year, the proprietors were probably modestly affluent by small-town standards, and working for them would have been a pretty good job.

Industrial development on the north side of West never took off as hoped, although the town grew. As the years passed, it seemed a reasonable idea to allow developers to fill in some of the vacant blocks in the north end with housing. When it became time to build new schools, the extreme north end still retained some the last sufficiently-large vacant sites within the city limits. The risk of the anhydrous transfer plant was recognized, but was familiar and professionally-managed, and a zoning variance was obtained.

Starting in 2011 or 2012, West Fertilizer changed their business model a bit, and started to stockpile and distribute granulated ammonium nitrate, an older, lower-tech form of nitrogen fertilizer, fading in popularity with falling market share (partially because of the well-known risk of explosion). This was a new line of business for them, one for which they were not properly sited or prepared. The proprietors did file the required Tier 11 reports with the State, declaring the presence of the ammonium nitrate. West Fertilizer had never before been required to work with DHS, and whether or not they knew of the requirement, they did not notify the DHS as required by law.

Ammonium nitrate has a completely different risk profile than anhydrous, but neither the state government, nor the community, nor the proprietors seem to have really regnized recognized the substantial new risks to the plant's employees and neighbors. The State of Texas seems to have notified the local first-responders of the presence of the ammonium nitrate, and there matters came to a halt.

As McTex points out, no one knows what happned to initiate the fire and explosion. Perhaps we never will.

In the event, either anhydrous industry standards, or the anydrous regulations with which West had long been in compliance, proved adequate even in extraordinary circumstances: the two large main anhydrous vessels were not ruptured in the incident, and the ten-ton ammonia spill envisioned in the RMP did not come to pass.

No one had required West Fertilizer to plan for the kind of incident that actually did occur. The state knew about the ammonium nitrate, but did not require a plan. EPA doesn't regulate ammonium nitrate. DHS does, but hadn't been notified. The community had been notified, but apparently didn't understand the import of the information they had been given.

*sigh*

very long comment, with no links, appears to be hung in moderation or spam trap. please to be freeing such when convenient thx.

Ammonium Nitrate Disasters

Texas does things bigger than anyone else.

Привет. Pleased to be helpful,

West Fertilizer and nearby school .

JH seems to have summed it up nicely. Inferentially, compliance with state and federal standards will affect some but not all outcomes. The fertilizer didn't spontaneously combust. It blew due to a fire. I am more interested in the cause of the fire. For all we know it could have been arson, which pretty much leaves us without a bad guy, other than the arsonist, unless some other evidence shows a disregard for a known, or reasonably knowable, practice or regulation that, had there been compliance, would have materially mitigated or prevented the explosion.

Unless DHS actually regulates storage of amonia nitrate, it is unlikely that notification to that agency would have made a difference.

As for Turb's question, building codes require smoke alarms and sprinkler systems in some but not most applications. This is a fairly recent phenomenon and I agree with it. I don't think mandatory, broad swath retrofitting should be required because it is cost prohibitive for almost everyone and the aggregate adverse impact would outweigh the benefit of what compliance remained after some unknown number of buildings are simply abandoned due to the owner's being unable to front the cost of the retrofit.

Smoke alarms do not apperar to be causally involved in this instance. The fire department knew there was a fire--they were fighting it. Smoke alarms are early warning devices, but require someone to be present to hear them. We don't know if anyone was present, we don't know how soon after the fire began the fire department was called, but we do know that the FD was called, which is the purpose served by smoke alarms.

As JH notes, the building was rather old and, inferentially predates modern code requirements. We don't know if a sprinkler would have made a difference. Maybe, maybe not.

I thoroughly appreciate Joel's comments and information above.

And, I'm left with a question. Or, a problem, really.

Let's assume that the plant owners checked all of the regulatory boxes. It's not clear that they did so, but let's imagine that they did.

As McK rightly notes, there is no reasonable set of regulations that will cover all possible cases effectively. So, there's always a crack to slip through.

Is that the end of the story? "It fell through the cracks".

There are, no doubt, risks inherent in living in a developed industrial and post-industrial society. There are, for that matter, risks inherent in living in a non-developed society. We all understand that there are risks in life.

To whom do the risks belong?

The folks who ran the plant decided to carry a fertilizer that also happens to be highly explosive. Famously, notoriously so. Sufficiently so that, if you have any large amount of it, DHS wants to know about it.

Even if they were not required to do so by the local, state, or federal government, don't the plant operators have some obvious, basic, human-level responsibility to not put the surrounding community at risk of being BLOWN THE HELL UP?

Did anyone in the surrounding area get a vote in the plant owner's decision to handle ammonium nitrate? Did anyone from the plant give them a heads up to let them know that they were, in fact, now living with the "inherent risk" of living and working near a stockpile of highly explosive material?

Or was their participation in the risk pool volunteered, on their behalf, by whoever decided that carrying ammonium nitrate was a prudent change in the "business model".

If you want to take risks, it seems to me that you should take risks with your own hide, not other people's. Claims that "nobody told me I couldn't do it" seem, to me, self-servingly lame.

The folks who ran the plant decided to carry a fertilizer that also happens to be highly explosive. Famously, notoriously so. Sufficiently so that, if you have any large amount of it, DHS wants to know about it.

Just wondering about the people who made the decision to store the ammonium nitrate, and what they actually knew about the extent of the risk. Sure, everyone (even I know, now) knows that it's an explosive material. But gasoline can explode too, and tanks of it are stored at densely populated areas.

This is not to absolve anyone of responsibility or liability. But the purpose of regulation is to have experts assess the potential for damage in a particular scenario and regulate it.

I think that as a matter of tort liability, even in the absence of regulation, people need to be held responsible for negligence, but that doesn't solve the problem here, where so many people died, and so much damage was done, and even if the company could compensate the victims, no amount would adequately do that. I wonder how much knowledge is required to run a business that includes storing hazardous substances. At the very least, it seems like such substances should not be able to be exchanged in commerce without some sort of regulatory oversight, including having experts working on the site where such materials are stored.

If the storage of such materials isn't highly regulated, it should be. If there's no requirement that people who engage in the business of storing fertilizer (that can explode) know how the material needs to be stored, know the expanse of any possible explosion, etc., then it can be assumed that there will be people who actually don't know the extent of the hazard who will engage in the business. As joel said "neither the state government, nor the community, nor the proprietors seem to have really recognized the substantial new risks to the plant's employees and neighbors."

It seems that if this hazard was foreseeable, it should have been highly regulated by people who are experts in regulatory agencies. Unless more facts prove otherwise, I think it might be fair to call this a very sad accident. The remedy now is to place much stronger regulations on the movement of this product in interstate commerce, so that people are charged with the knowledge of the consequences of storing it negligently.

I think this is the counterpoint to the whole "big corporate greed over safety" view of what happened. This is a small company, employs 8 people, a centerpiece of a farming community,

Dixon described West Fertilizer as a place you go not just to buy fertilizer but to learn.“They have a lot of knowledge of the new products in the industry,” Dixon said. “A lot of small communities around here have an area like that where you can get that type of information.”

“They’re good people,” said McLellan, who works with West Fertilizer professionally and buys his own fertilizer there as well. “They’re big community supporters, Little League, other events.”



a few violations here and there, but corrected.
“I know they were up to date on safety issues and the regulation sides,” said Shane McLellan, an agent with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, a Texas A&M education-based partnership with federal, state, and county governments that works with farmers and their suppliers

Unlike much of the discussion would lead you to believe, they had been inspected over the last few years by EPA,U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration,and The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. And they certainly were not hiding the amount of the fertilizer they had:

Late Thursday it was learned that West Fertilizer told the Texas Department of Health Services on Feb. 26 that it was storing up to 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, along with up to 110,000 pounds of the liquid ammonia, according to the disclosure report. Ammonium nitrate is the highly explosive chemical compound used in Oklahoma City federal building bombing April 19, 1995.

So, while there may be some legal liability, my conclusion is that these were normal folks running a small business, in their community, who were probably pretty sure that their plant was safe. I can't come to the conclusion it is anything but an industrial accident.

1 gallon of gasoline = 66.9 pounds of TNT.

I think there were four failures here.

Foremost, the plant operators should have been aware that ammonium nitrate in bulk presents a risk of explosion. This is well-known; the McVeigh bombing reminded us all; and it must certainly be well known within the industry community that produces and handles this material. Sited as it was, and with schools for neighbors, West should never have created a stockpile of ammonium nitrate. Also, I think the plant operators should have told the community that their school-siting plans were dangerous, because of the possibility of an anhydrous spill.

Second, Texas state regulators, or the lack thereof. West was required to notify the state of the presence of ammonium nitrate, and did so. In a state with a different regulatory culture, the state would have required West to prepare and file a risk management plan for their ammonium nitrate stockpile. I suspect that review of such a plan would have clearly shown regulators that the site was unsuitable. I also suspect that complying with the measures required in an ammonium nitrate risk management plan at the current site would have made the ammonium nitrate business unprofitable for West, and that they would have therefore abandoned it. This is the whole point of such regulatory law: to get the operators to bear the costs of external risks up front, so that they're included in the profit/loss calculations, and thus to discourage development of businesses potentially dangerous to their neighbors. The anhydrous _was_ regulated, and even with a huge explosion, the required safety measures seem to have prevented that particular horror.

Texas legislators, and by extension Texas voters, apparently do not want from their State government the kind of regulatory apparatus I've just described.
Sow; reap.

The third failure seems to belong to the West volunteer fire department, which was notified by the state that West had stockpiled ammonium nitrate. Perhaps a more professional organization, with a trained Fire Marshall, would have become alarmed at the situation, and would at least have warned the wider community.

Finally, the entire community of West seems to have had a failure of imagination. Ammonium nitrate or no, their schools should never have been sited next to 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. The need to seek a variance to get those sites approves should have made them aware that they were needlessly risking the lives of their kids in a forseeable catastrophe. Small anyhdrous spills are not uncommon; in farm country, many people know how tricky and dangerous the material can be. They failed to imagine the consequences of a big spill. It was only luck that the incident happened while the schools were empty.

I can't come to the conclusion it is anything but an industrial accident.

I don't think anyone disputes that it's an industrial accident. Did the operators of the plant intend for the materials to blow up? Not likely.

But the word "accident" is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. If by "accident" we mean an event that could not have been foreseen by a reasonable person, then I don't think that applies.

And I'm not sure the size of the company, or whether they were nice people, or whether they were excellent dispensers of advice about how to use fertilizer are all that relevant.

If you're going to do risky things, it's your responsibility to manage the risk. Not anybody else's.

Personal responsibility, isn't that the conservative credo?

FWIW, I think joel hanes' 12:56 is exactly on the money, on all points.

"I suspect that review of such a plan would have clearly shown regulators that the site was unsuitable. I also suspect that complying with the measures required in an ammonium nitrate risk management plan at the current site would have made the ammonium nitrate business unprofitable for West, and that they would have therefore abandoned it."


Not to diminish the risk IF it explodes, storing ammonium nitrate fertilizer is not really considered a high risk activity. The reason that Homeland Security is the only agency that actually regulates it is, I suspect, because they didn't want another Timothy McVeigh to get it. Not because it is inherently unstable. As noted here:

Chemical safety experts aren't very concerned with ammonium nitrate, says Neal Langerman, a consultant with Advanced Chemical Safety in San Diego. In general, ammonium nitrate "being stored in a fertilizer distribution facility is not a high-risk activity" because when properly stored, it is unlikely to explode.

Still, Haywood says, ammonium nitrate can be extremely dangerous, especially if exposed to temperatures over 400 degrees — which might have happened during the fire at the West depot.

I will note that your (and my) "I suspect" and Haywoods "when properly stored" are both doing a lot of work.

So, I suspect, that the towns people and the company reasonably had an expectation that a fertilizer, that is still used as a preference in Central Texas, was not all that dangerous. I also suspect that in a town of 2500 people, many of whom use the fertilizer, it was no surprise that it was there.

I don't think anyone disputes that it's an industrial accident.

Er...have you seen the title of this post? ;-)


That said, I agree with you regarding the backbreaking effort that the word "accident" is making. I mean, I guess if a pilot polishes off a handle of vodka before flying and ends up crashing a 747, that would be an accident too: the pilot certainly didn't intend to commit suicide. But "accident" doesn't seem like the whole truth and is perhaps a mite deceptive.

One more point. As for the volunteer fire department. I, with absolutely no knowledge of their training or professionalism, prefer to assume they were rushing to do what they had been trained for, like the first responders at the twin towers, knowing the risk. Why we would diminish their bravery, after the pages of print and hours of coverage of first responders running toward the bombs in Boston, is beyond me.

Why we would diminish their bravery

No one is diminishing their bravery.

A fire department does different things. Some of those things involve bravery (like running into a burning building) and some of those things require specific skills (like recognizing that a building with 250 tons of fertilizer is a special hazard in a populated area). Professionals are often better than amateurs when it comes to specific skills: I can bandage your papercut very well, but you don't want me performing open heart surgery on you because I'm not a surgeon. There's no shame in saying that a small volunteer fire dept wouldn't have all the skills of a professional fire marshal. And it doesn't diminish their bravery.

In Boston, we have exceptional first responders but I know for a fact that towns in metrowest pay their fire chiefs well over $100K/year. Being exceptional costs money, but perhaps less than having your whole town blow up because a fertilizer facility owner was too stupid to buy basic safety equipment.

Just a bit about explosive potential because most people are not aware of it.
The important parts in chemical explosions are:
1) amount of heat released
2) amount of gas released
3) speed of 1) and 2)
Common explosives are surprisingly low on 1), household sugar has more energy per unit than dynamite*, but they make up for it in 2) and 3). Thermite produces no gas at all but releases large amounts of heat very quickly, which can cause big damage in the vicinity but will not produce much of a pressure wave and only if in contact with gas or liquid that can expand rapidly throug heating. Vinegar-baking soda 'bombs' produce large amounts of gas with not much heat but the reaction is rather slow. It still can cause damgage when enclosed in a shell that bursts into sharp splinters (yes, that includes simple glass bottles).
Fuel only explodes when vaporised and mixed with the appropriate amount of oxygen, otherwise the reaction is too slow and it just burns (btw, most explosives also burn when not enclosed).
Explosives as commonly understood turn into gas and release their heat of reaction
very rapidly, with the first part being the far more important one. The ideal explosive would be a kind of solid nitrogen at room temperature (which would create essentially a cold explosion with no aggressive side products). The closest to that I know of has the formula C2H2N10 and is used as an initiator (primer) but is too unstable and expensive for use as main charge.
Rule of thumb: if the propagation of the reaction through the stuff is faster than the speed of sound then it is an explosive even if not enclosed. If it is slower, it will burn not bang when not enclosed.

*fine-grain sugar mixed with liquid oxygen IS a powerful explosive. Don't try it at home.

OK, in a total loss of piety and good taste I cannot avoid quoting this old song:


My brother bill is a fireman bold;
He puts out fires.
He's only twenty-four years old;
He puts out fires.
He went to fight a fire one night
When somebody shouted DYNAMITE!
Wherever he is he'll be alright;
He puts out fires.

Please remove if considered too gross.

your (and my) "I suspect" and Haywoods "when properly stored" are both doing a lot of work.

Acknowledged.

And I have nothing but respect for the firefighters, and am in awe of their courage. They knew that West was an anhydrous facility. (The firefighter training videos I watched described the protocol for an approaching an anhydrous spill; it requires a team to walk, under mist curtains, right up to the pressure vessel to operate the safety valves. Brrr.)

Fighting a conventional fire in such a facility must be a nightmare. There may have been no approach that would have prevented the catastrophe. They all turned out and went in and did their best.

"A fire department does different things. "

Good point.

The purpose of all the smoke detectors in your house is not to save your property or your neighbors property. They are there to wake you up and get you and your family out of the house before you all perish from smoke inhalation.
The purpose of fire detectors in commercial buildings that spend many hours unoccupied is to notify the fire department they are needed ASAP. The detectors must be monitored and in this situation where the building contained explosive material the detectors should have been linked direct to the Fire Dept.
By the time a good citizen notices the smoke billowing in the sky it's too late.

I wonder: where were the insurers?

Did West Fertilizer have liability insurance? If so, why didn't the underwriters take one look at the school siting and say "oh hell no" ?

Does the school district have insurance? If so, why didn't the underwriters scream about the anhydrous plant right next door ?

An informative article in the Dallas News contradicts and probably falsifies several important features of my narrative.
http://www.dallasnews.com/news/west-explosion/headlines/20130423-why-didn-t-2400-tons-of-ammonium-nitrate-at-west-plant-raise-concerns.ece

I dropped into the comments and made joel's link clickable. The comments are also interesting and the last comment has a link to a blog that has obtained the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) records.

I've seen estimates of damages to be about $100 million. Any insurance the facility had is going to seem minuscule compared to that.

I read you links Joel. I'm trying to understand how an agency (the Texas Chemist associated with the Texas A nd M)that regulates the amonia for national security reasons could fail to have any responsiblity for acting on their knowledge of its fire-producing or explosive properties.

Note also the the Republican governor and the Republican Congressional delegation don't see any regulatory failures. Assholes.

I also suspect that in a town of 2500 people, many of whom use the fertilizer, it was no surprise that it was there.

Joel's latest makes the same point.

What I think is that different people have different expectations and levels of interest in having stuff like this brought under the discipline of public regulation.

It's a shame that folks were killed and property destroyed, I think everyone is in complete agreement on that point.

But what seems like an obvious solution to me may just not be all that appealing to folks in TX. And, basically, I'm not sure I have anything to say about that.

From Joel's highly informative cites, it seems that the company did a sort of C+ level job of keeping the regulators up to speed, which is probably pretty normal for many many places, not just West TX, and in the end there wasn't anyone at the state level with the specific responsibility to insure that best safety practices were being used.

The "crack" that things fell through is sort of just a function of how things are set up, and (again, per Joel's cites) there's no particular outcry to change that. The opposite, if anything.

Things like this boggle my mind, but I'm not sure what I have to say about it. Folks in other parts of the country are intelligent adults, they make their own choices about how to run their own lives.

The big epiphany that I've experienced, over and over again, over the last ten years or so of hanging out on political blogs and conversing with people who have other points of view, is this:

They're actually pretty happy with their understanding of the world.

There's a downside to loose (by my lights) regulation, and unfortunately the folks in West are living it right now. I'm sure there's an upside as well, and I can only assume that folks in that area are either happy with the overall balance as it is, or will adjust as they see fit going forward.

Best wishes to the folks in West, I hope they get whatever help they need and are able to move on.

Ammonium nitrate is still being used in part because anyhdrous ammonia is unstable in alkaline soils, breaking down before plants can use it. Ammonium nitrate makes up about 2% of the nitrogen fertilizer sold in the US.

There's a downside to loose (by my lights) regulation, and unfortunately the folks in West are living it right now.

We have pipeline explosions with a lot more frequency than fertilizer explosions. The body count is usually fairly low, so the hue and cry is negligible. We had one in Houston, about a quarter of a mile from a neighborhood. A bulldozer drove over a pipeline, the ground was too soft to support the bulldozer and the pipe was ruptured. Four hours later, it blew (spectacularly) but no fatalities and two relatively small injuries. Pipelines are regulated by the Feds. Poorly regulated IMO. IIRC, there are approximately 50 pipeline inspectors on the federal payroll. Federal regulation is no proof against accidents.

Ammonium nitrate is still being used in part because anyhdrous ammonia is unstable in alkaline soils, breaking down before plants can use it.

Nitrate also has the virtue of being generally safer to use, particularly when it is combined with inert fillers. It doesn't tend to hurt or kill you if there's a leak in your storage vessel.

Anhydrous is nasty stuff. Anyone who's worked with concentrated ammonium hydroxide (which is just anhydrous in solution with water) knows you don't handle it without a fume hood.

Not that I've done that in the last four decades or so, but the memory lingers.

"Poorly regulated IMO. IIRC, there are approximately 50 pipeline inspectors on the federal payroll. Federal regulation is no proof against accidents."

Then the system is working as designed.

The key flaw from the Texas political establishment's point of view (at the State level and their elected Federal reps) is there are 50 too many federal pipeline inspectors.

Not you, MckT, those other people, over there, who never show up here to be yelled at.

If they would show up (they used to, but then the lot of them disappeared behind the banning firewall at Reichstagstate), here's how they should be confronted:

http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/04/29/battling-infowars/

Not work-friendly and ear buds at home for the kids' sakes.

The guy being yelled at is related, I think, to Louis Gohmert and Ted Cruz, but heck, Texas doesn't have a monopoly on whackjobs sent to Washington.

A couple of decades ago, I worked in a programming shop that developed and maintained software to monitor and control oil and gas pipelines and pumping stations. Some of the scariest FORTRAN I ever seen. Possibly related, several of the programmers often had a few beers with lunch.

Some of the scariest FORTRAN I ever seen

Depending on your prior exposure, I am very afraid.

I suspect that that code, along with the machines it ran on, is in the dustbins of history. I hope.

Don't count on hope. We have military systems currently in use that are (partially) coded in JOVIAL and running on Z80 processors.

Not work-friendly and ear buds at home for the kids' sakes.

Alec Jones is an embarrassment. So naturally, I think, everyone wants to have him on.

I think he's best ignored, and his ideas calmly refuted when they surface. This false-flag business wasn't remotely plausible after 9/11, and it isn't either in this case.

Heckling is good, too.

Alex. Shows you how much I pay attention to the guy.

Federal regulation is no proof against accidents.

Two things:

1. Nothing in my comment about federal. Just so we're clear.

2. Nothing is proof against accidents. It's a numbers game, i.e., a matter of statistical probabilities, and it's just a matter of where along the risk continuum you want to be.

Different strokes, y'all.

here's how they should be confronted

Welcome to Boston.

The key flaw from the Texas political establishment's point of view (at the State level and their elected Federal reps) is there are 50 too many federal pipeline inspectors.

Not you, MckT, those other people, over there, who never show up here to be yelled at.

I know you're not picking on me. As for the Texas attitude: Maybe. We have our share of regulatory agencies. I am fine with the Feds imposing a one-size-fits-all rule for things that are national in scope, pipelines being one of them. Fear of lawsuits, IMO, is a greater motivator than regulation, but weak regulation is almost worse and may be worse than no regulation. I've talked to pipeline regulators and operators both. If there is compliance with the minimalist regs, everyone is happy. Industry standards do a lot more for safety than the feds in this area. Texans don't like getting blown up more than anyone else, FWIW.

On a related topic, I've driven on roads in other states. We do a pretty good job here on signage, road design, etc, and that is all state level stuff. Most industries have a strong safety culture, driven partly by fear of lawsuits but more because a company's safety record is important in getting business and because, in my experience defending hundreds of companies, the vast majority really do care about not hurting people. The exceptions typically are small operations with low margins.

1. Nothing in my comment about federal. Just so we're clear.

True. That was an inference I drew. Sorry about that.

no worries McK.

Fear of lawsuits, IMO, is a greater motivator than regulation...

That depends. If that were the case, then public policies lowering the barriers to lawsuits would have a huge impact on industrial safety. But if everybody was sued and lost, we'd all be out of work and the lawyers would have all the money leading, of course, to the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization as it may or may not be currently practiced. Hence, tort reform.

Sometimes us lefties just can't win. Soldier on, McT.

Fear of lawsuits, IMO, is a greater motivator than regulation...

Sometimes us lefties just can't win.

There's always pitchforks.

Cheaper than lawyers, far more focussed and to the point than any regulation.

Analysis piece in The Christian Science Monitor blames


Blew the link.

The CSM piece blames the lack of Texas regulation and deliberate Republican "starve the beast" under-funding of OSHA for the death and destruction. Specifically calls out the US Chamber of Commerce for opposing and undermining effective regulation of dangerous businesses.

The current owners of West Fertilizer were carrying one million dollars in liability insurance.

Read somewhere that the insurance company was responsible for evaluating preventative measures. That's nuts. In NYC it was the insurance industry that wrote the first building codes. Guess they have a very different mindset down in Texas.

Also looks like the neighborhood was there first, if that matters to anyone.

"The West Chemical and Fertilizer Company started in 1962 on the outskirts of Abbot Hill, Texas – just under five miles northeast of its current location...In 1984, West Chemical and Fertilizer moved operations to its current location in West. It wasn’t until eight years later, in 1992, that the company informed the TCEQ that the facility had moved." ~ News and insights from Banks Environmental Data

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