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John Galt Kills Texans in Massive Fertilizer Plant Explosion

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Yves here. Coverage of the horrific fertilizer plant explosion has taken a back seat to reporting of the Boston Marathon bombings. Yet more people died in the Texas tragedy, which was also preventable.

By Jim White. Cross posted from emptywheel

West-Texas

Google Maps satellite view of West Fertilizer and its proximity to West Middle School, along with many houses and apartments.

Who needs pesky safety regulations or zoning laws when there is money to made running a fertilizer plant? Sadly, the small Texas town of West, which is just north of Waco, is suffering the consequences of unregulated free enterprise today, as a massive explosion at West Fertilizer has leveled much of the town. Perhaps the only remotely fortunate aspect of this tragedy is that it occurred at 8 pm local time and so West Middle School, which burned after the explosion, was not full of children.

A look at the satellite image above shows the folly of putting “free enterprise” ahead of sensible zoning laws. At almost 20 miles north of Waco, Texas, one thing that is in abundance in the region is open space (I’ve driven past this spot several times in the last two or three years–it’s desolate), and yet this fertilizer plant is immediately adjacent to a large apartment building (see the photo at the top of this article for how that building fared in the explosion) and very close to a middle school. There is no reason at all for any other building to be within two or three miles of a facility that produces material that is so explosive.

The Texas tradition of low taxes is also having an impact on this tragedy. Note this passage in the New York Times account of the disaster:

It began with a smaller fire at the plant, West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, about 20 miles north of Waco that was attended by local volunteer firefighters, said United States Representative Bill Flores. “The fire spread and hit some of these tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer,” Mr. Flores said, “and there was an explosion which caused wide damage.”

That’s right. This fertilizer plant and other businesses in West apparently don’t pay enough in local taxes to support a municipal fire department, and so the first responders to a fire at a fertilizer plant were volunteer firefighters. Sadly, several of these volunteers are now missing:

The town’s volunteer firefighters responded to a call at the plant about 6 p.m., said Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton. Muska was among them, and he and his colleagues were working to evacuate the area around the plant when the blast followed about 50 minutes later. Muska said it knocked off his fire helmet and blew out the doors and windows of his nearby home.

Five or six volunteer firefighters were at the plant fire when the explosion happened, Muska said, and not all have been accounted for.

Ammonium nitrate, one of the most commonly used fertilizers is also highly explosive. It was the primary component of Timothy McVeigh’s bomb that destroyed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Texas, especially, should know of the dangers inherent in fertilizer plants, as this disaster occurs very near the anniversary of the Texas City disaster:

One of the worst disasters in Texas history occurred on April 16, 1947, when the ship SS Grandcamp exploded at 9:12 A.M. at the docks in Texas City. The French-owned vessel, carrying explosive ammonium nitrate produced during wartime for explosives and later recycled as fertilizer, caught fire early in the morning, and while attempts were being made to extinguish the fire, the ship exploded. The entire dock area was destroyed, along with the nearby Monsanto Chemical Company, other smaller companies, grain warehouses, and numerous oil and chemical storage tanks. Smaller explosions and fires were ignited by flying debris, not only along the industrial area, but throughout the city. Fragments of iron, parts of the ship’s cargo, and dock equipment were hurled into businesses, houses, and public buildings. A fifteen-foot tidal wave caused by the force swept the dock area. The concussion of the explosion, felt as far away as Port Arthur, damaged or destroyed at least 1,000 residences and buildings throughout Texas City. The ship SS High Flyer, in dock for repairs and also carrying ammonium nitrate, was ignited by the first explosion; it was towed 100 feet from the docks before it exploded about sixteen hours later, at 1:10 A.M. on April 17. The first explosion had killed twenty-six Texas City firemen and destroyed all of the city’s fire-fighting equipment, including four trucks, leaving the city helpless in the wake of the second explosion. No central disaster organization had been established by the city, but most of the chemical and oil plants had disaster plans that were quickly activated. Although power and water were cut off, hundreds of local volunteers began fighting the fires and doing rescue work. Red Cross personnel and other volunteers from surrounding cities responded with assistance until almost 4,000 workers were operating; temporary hospitals, morgues, and shelters were set up.

Probably the exact number of people killed will never be known, although the ship’s anchor monument records 576 persons known dead, 398 of whom were identified, and 178 listed as missing. All records of personnel and payrolls of the Monsanto Company were destroyed, and many of the dock workers were itinerants and thus difficult to identify. Almost all persons in the dock area-firemen, ships’ crews, and spectators-were killed, and most of the bodies were never recovered; sixty-three bodies were buried unidentified.

It would appear that Texas has learned very little from that disaster and still chooses to sacrifice volunteer first responders at the alter altar of free enterprise.

Special FREEDOM bonus: Did you notice the name of the street to the west of the middle school? It’s North Reagan Street, because, well, freedom.

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120 comments

  1. nonclassical

    hmmmnn…that’s one way to end “public school education”…

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/colbert-skewers-texas-gop-on-critical-thinking/2012/07/18/gJQAn7nsuW_blog.html

    ..”The minds of our young people are being poisoned by knowledge… I have long praised the Texas Board of Education for their valiant work rewriting our nation’s history textbooks. But now I believe they’ve got some stiff competition from the Texas GOP, who recently put a plank in their 2012 party platformn regarding children’s education which says, and I quote, ‘We oppose the teaching of critical thinking skills.’ Amen brother. For too long we have blindly accepted the idea of not blindly accepting ideas.

    “And you know who I blame? I blame Galileo…. For centuries we had a perfectly good explanation for the order of the universe. Bible says the sun goes around the Earth, making us the center of the universe. And you know what? Everyone was happy. And then numnuts over here gets a telescope for Christmas, uses his precious critical thinking skills and suddenly the Earth goes around the sun, blah blah blah and now we have lesbians.

    I’m here to tell you now the Texas GOP is on to you, critical thinking skills! They know that you have quote the purpose of challenging the students’ fixed beliefs, and a good teacher’s job is to maintain whatever fixed beliefs a student has when they enter first grade.

    Frankly folks, I am embarrassed that we conservatives did not think of this sooner…. Sure,we discredited the liberal activism of the ‘60s and the socialist policies of the New Deal… But folks, all of that is just child’s play compared to the Texas GOP, who with this one plank of their platform have called for the repeal of the Enlightenment.

    And as if to illustrate what is possible once you are freed from the shackles of critical thinking… The Texas GOP, when asked about this position, explained it as an oversight and should not have included the words ‘critical thinking skills.’

    Now, when they were drafting the platform, somebody had to say ‘no critical thinking skills.’ Somebody else had to type those words and then the Texas GOP had to approve those words. Do you really think that would have been possible if anybody had been thinking critically? But thank God no one was. And if they get their way, nobody will be…”

    1. F. Beard

      Bible says the sun goes around the Earth, making us the center of the universe. nonclassical

      It does, if the origin of your coordinate system is the center of the Earth.

      I programmed a simple solar system simulator in C++ to prove it. With Earth as the center, the Sun went around the Earth and the outer planets did epicycles.

    2. F. Beard

      Progressives would do well to use the Bible against their enemies instead of lame attempts to ridicule it.

    3. Goyo Marquez

      “Bible says the sun goes around the Earth…”

      Uhhh… I’m pretty sure that was Ptolemy, the Greek philosopher. Though I have no problem with you beating the Church over the head, which it well deserves for casting aside what the Bible says in favor of Greek philosophy.

      1. Claudius

        Don’t be too sure……Ptolemy, (Claudius Ptolemaeus, of Greek descent) was actually an astronomer (mathematician, and geographer) and a resident of Alexandria, in Egypt. A city which, at that time, was a Roman province – part of the Roman empire; conferring Roman citizenship to Claudius; which he accepted (personally and professionally).

        So, subject to your politics, he’s arguably either Egyptian or Roman, but not Greek.

        1. Goyo Marquez

          Well… Greek in the sense that he lived in a part of what had once been a Greek empire, in a city named after Alexander, famous for it’s schools of philosophy notably neo-platonism. So definitely a “Greek” in that sense.

    4. Bob

      The implication of the length of your response is that you are well read. But the Bible says the earth hangs on nothing, it is round and the universe is expanding. Nowhere does it say that the sun circles the earth. It also says there are more stars than we can count. All written hundreds of years B.C., by anyone’s measure.

      You heard about what the Bible says from somewhere and blindly accepted the idea. Go read it for yourself- and try different transliterations or the original Greek and Hebrew if you have questions.

  2. Badtux

    But… but… free market! Surely this disaster was caused by government interference in the free market, why, if government had only butted out then the magical Free Market Fairy would have waved her magic wand and sprinkled magic Free Market Fairy Dust over everything and those blast walls and such would have just magically appeared despite the fact that they cost money, just like that Bangladeshi factory that collapsed was ’cause government regulators scared off the Free Market Fairy with their eeeevil “regulations!” And… and… puppies. Yes, PUPPIES! Why do you want to make puppies sad by calling for enforcement of safety regulations? If you don’t stop, the puppies will die!

    /SarcasmOff

    I bet that this ahole who owned the factory whined every Saturday at his country club about those eeeeevil government regulators, inbetween chortling about how he’d bought laws making sure they didn’t actually come near his plant. In a just world he’d be hanging from a gibbet as a mass murderer. Sadly, we don’t live in a just world.

    1. diptherio

      The owner is currently thanking gawd that there is a government, else I think he would be swinging from a lamp post. IIRC, Texans are pretty good at that whole lynching thing. The dude is probably white, of course, but I bet the good people of West would make an exception to the normal rule, just this once.

      Fortunately, there is no need to resort to such measures, as we can depend on our national government to make sure that the evil-doers are punished…oh, wait…

          1. diptherio

            I heard an anecdote about a club owner hearing Willie sing before he was a star. “Boy,” he said, “that ain’t singin’, that’s talkin’!”

            Thanks for the link, love it.

      1. Mike G

        Texans are good at the whole lynching thing if you’re a misbehaving member of an “under” group. But it’s an authoritarian, heirarchical culture and they tend to be cloyingly servile toward rich and powerful businessmen who sit at the top of their social pyramid.

  3. Yawn Mcruff

    Where should a class acion lawsuit be aimed? Federal Gum’mint? Wall Street terrorism is what this is.

  4. Tad Ghostal

    Jim, Yves,

    I’ve got a simple question: When was the fertilizer facility originally permitted, built, and opened?

    Of course, the logical follow up is: Same question as above, but for the buildings where people were harmed by, or could have been harmed by the blast.

    The article essentially makes two arguments;
    First, that some party was grossly negligent in allowing the close proximity of the fertilizer plant and the buildings damaged in the blast, and . . .

    Second, that the responsible party was an uncaring capitalist baddie who hates regulations, believes in the free markets, and who clearly takes advantage of dumb back-woods hicks through sloganeering and exploitation of their own ideology-driven stupidity.

    Let’s consider that argument after we determine who was there first.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Straw man. The article focused on the fact that West could not afford to have a municipal fire department because the plant didn’t pay enough in taxes.

      And as for the character of the operators, that’s been covered elsewhere but given the caliber of MSM reporting, the author may have assumed too much reader knowledge.

      Per Media Matters:

      All three cable news networks failed to highlight a West, Texas, fertilizer plant’s storage of 270 tons of ammonium nitrate — 1,350 times the amount allowed without disclosure to the federal government — in reporting on the April 17 explosion at that plant. The networks also virtually ignored the plant’s history of violating state and federal regulations.

      An April 20 Reuters report noted that fertilizer plants and depots must report to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) whenever they hold 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive chemical that can be used in bomb making. Reuters reported, however, that the plant that owned the company, West Fertilizer, “did not tell [DHS] about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principle regulators of ammonium nitrate … unaware of any danger there….As Think Progress reported, the plant has previously been cited or fined by five different government agencies.

      http://mediamatters.org/blog/2013/04/23/why-are-media-ignoring-tx-fertilizer-plants-his/193739

      So I might ask why are you defending a murderous rule-breaking plant operator?

      1. Larry Barber

        It’s very common for small towns like this to have volunteer fire departments. West has a population of less than 3000 people. It makes no sense to have a full time fire department when you only have a handful of fires in a year. How many fires do you think happen in a town of less than 3000 in a year. Volunteers can also be quite effective, the best volunteer departments are as good as just about any professional department. Don’t believe me, just check out the rates for home insurance in areas that have volunteer firefighters.

        The article also seems to imply that the missing firefighters are missing because they are volunteers, which is complete nonsense. They are missing because they got caught in an explosion, a few years ago something similar happened in the city where I live, which has a full-time “regular” fire department. They went to a fire at a construction site and an unlabeled semi-trailer full of explosive blew up.

        1. bluntobj

          The cost of maintaining a full time professional fire department runs into the millions, even for a small department.

      2. Yaun

        The only person using a strawman is you, in particular with this sentence:

        >> So I might ask why are you defending a murderous rule-breaking plant operator?

        You stated in your article that free enterprise was put ahead of zoning laws and it is relevant to you argument.

        As far as the voluntary fire department is concerned: West has 2807 inhabitants (according to Wikipedia). Very few towns of that size (if any) have professional fire departments.

        Even if it is an enterprise, the rule is still ‘innocent until proven guilty’ so if you have any relevant information that influence was used to overcome better judgement and zoning laws then please present it.

        Otherwise, Creating blog entries just as wacky and manipulative as often seen on the right wing side won’t help your case.

      3. Tad Ghostal

        No defense is offered for anybody. I’m asking relevant questions and seeking to understand this better.

        If the zoning, proximity and Texas geography weren’t essential elements of the story and argument, then why did the author waste his anchor image, caption, lede, and first two paragraphs talking about nothing else?

        And if those elements are essential to the story, how is the historical development not at the crux of understanding what happened and why?

        1. tts

          Hahaha can’t believe people are still stupid enough to try the Glen Beck “just asking questions” line of BS.

          Yves, he basically just broadcasted as clear as day that he is fundamentally dishonest by taking that tack. Don’t waste your time talking to him.

        2. Doug Terpstra

          “Who was there first?” is also irrelevant. Even if the plant dates to Genesis 1, it cannot void the property rights of adjacent land, occupied or not. The first in often enjoys being able to externalize its noise, smells, toxins, and hazards up to the point a neighbor moves in and decides to exercise their latent, intrinsic rights that adhere to their property. And it cannot endanger the health, safety, and welfare of anyone, on its own property and or its neighbors, even if they moved in the day of the explosion. Your main question is moot.

          1. Nalu Girl

            Doug, I wouldn’t say that the first-in point is entirely moot. In cases of endangerment, yes, but I live in Phoenix and there are many cases of people who bought land on the outskirts years ago and put trailers on their property, built outbuilding, and lived there for years. Then upscale developments were built nearby, people bought those houses KNOWING what was nearby, and immediately started trying to get their neighbors’ property condemned because it “spoiled their view.” Same case in the southeast Valley, where people bought houses in new subdivisions near dairy farms and then complained because of the smell. What? They didn’t notice the cows??? Sorry, but I think that people who were there first should have some rights, especially if they aren’t endangering anyone, just inconveniencing them because they weren’t paying attention.

      4. Yves Smith Post author

        Yaun,

        Apples and oranges.

        A town with a plant is completely different from the usual 3000 person town that has no substantial source of jobs within its boundaries particularly one that constitutes an obvious fire/safety risk.

        And the typical Texas lack of zoning is THE reason the plant was in such close proximity to homes. Per Bloomberg, the plant was in the county, which had weaker zoning laws than West proper. It is hard to discern the chronology, but it looks as if the homes were built and the town was incorporated later. So the homes were presumably built under the weak county (state wide) zoning rules.

        And as to the owner, the parent company has only 10 employees, which suggests a recognition of and an effort to minimize liability (as in locate minimal activities and assets beyond the plant proper in the legal entity). Consistent with the history of regulatory violations and evasion.

        1. bluntobj

          And it was likely not a high margin operation.

          Judging by the corporate filings, it was a small family owned corporation,the family having lived in the town since the plant was built in 1962.

          As to OSHA inspections, it ain’t the plant that calls for those. It’s the government agency that goes out and inspects. I’d bet that the owners had also not even heard of Homeland’s requirements to be informed. We will no doubt discover that in time.

          It is the owner of the plant’s fault, absolutely. The safety of his workers and their safe work practices was his ultimate responsibility. This applies to your sneering villification of “Galt,” supposing that this explosion was in the self interest of the Adair family, that they will profit from this, and that short term interest is the nature of capitalism and business.

          It’s a lot to get into, and I have no intention of doing that. Suffice to say that the family, its business that they spent their life building, their family’s future, and all the futures of the families in that town have been destroyed or mangled. That, I submit, is not Galt.

          Acceptance of that level of risk in favor of short term profits is the hallmark of the financial industry you left, not that of real capitalism or rational businessmen, who invest on longer planning horizons than just next quarter.

          That Adair Grain made bad, wrong decisions that they are now going to pay for is not Galt, nor is is good business.

          I suggest that before you talk about Texas zonging laws, perhaps you might talk about the advisability of building on the waterfront in areas like new york or florida, building near nuclear plants, siting said plants near fault lines, flood areas, or on ocean shores, etc. Those will kill far more people than this spectacular event.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            No, you have the history wrong. The Adairs purchased it in 2004.

            Nice try at a touching fantasy.

            1. Dr. Brian Oblivion

              Clearly until you have provided proper background via a series of posts detailing the impact that milk and puppies have had on business decisions at Adair Grain you are doing a disservice to readers who will not understand how deeply this corporation cares for the community of West and the profound impact it has had on whirled peas.

              Violent video games and Japanese dating simulators are not even mentioned. Why is that? Could you perhaps have a conflict of interest that you are trying desperately to conceal? Have we sufficiently muddied the waters yet?

              I am not concern trolling. Getting paid by the post to derail comment threads and put those who criticize jaaaahb creators instead of blaming poor folk for [whatever] is hard work.

          2. Hal

            “real capitalism or rational businessmen”

            Ah, those mythical creatures, real capitalism and rational businessmen. Often referred to, but never actually seen, because that way, the true believers can blame everything on their absence.

    2. dw

      well that plant is very very old, so it was some time the 1950-60s. it was originally permitted by the city or county. the other buildings were also done by the city or county as that is done locally in Texas. now in a city of that size, any economic facility of that size gets what it wants. and while it was rediculos to allow a school or apartments or houses be built near by, its highly likely that if they had kept them away, they wouldnt have been in West at all. which might have been the right choice.

  5. profoundlogic

    Interesting (but not surprising) that Perry would suggest better oversight wouldn’t have prevented such a disaster. I suppose he’s more interested in protecting the Texas Enterprise Fund than the lives of innocent people affected by negligent business owners.

    For those who feel the need for more regulation and better oversight….well, they can just pray about it.

    http://www.taylormarsh.com/blog/2013/04/rick-perry-following-west-explosion-comfortable-with-state-oversight/

  6. MikeH

    It is interesting to note that THE OWNERS of companies like West Fertilizer are NEVER NAMED. These people wreak havoc in society in their pursuit for the dollar, but they are never called out by name. Why not? Just like the unnamed lobbyists that write our laws, they remain oddly anonymous

    1. dnm

      Per Reuters, West Fertilizer Co is owned Adair Grain Inc., which in turn is owned by Donald Adair, a farmer and resident of West. Choice sections from the Reuters article:

      Another neighbor of Adair, who asked not to be identified, described him as a “good guy.”

      “It’s a farming community, everybody knows him. Like I said, it happened, and (to blame him) don’t make good sense.”

      And:

      [T]he local insurance agent [...] was quick to defend Adair’s reputation even though his home 500 yards from the plant is likely a total loss.

      “Hell no,” he said when asked if he held Adair responsible for what happened at the plant.

      And:

      West Fertilizer had been fined occasionally for regulatory violations since Adair bought it, but a Texas state environmental official described its safety record as “average.”

      So it seems less like a story about big, bad capitalists, and more like a whole community unable to see the connection between causes and consequences.

      1. Working Class Nero

        Two other important quotes from that article were:

        The privately held fertilizer plant has been in operation since 1962, long before the homes and nearby schools were built, and the fertilizer was needed by farmers, they said.

        So the question really is who were the brain-dead idiots who financed and built a public school so close to a dangerous plant. Same question for the residential units.

        The fertilizer facility had an appraised market value of $908,400 when he bought it in 2004, according to McLennan County property tax records. By last year, its appraised value had fallen to $723,771, although it was not clear why.

        [clip]

        The Adair family have been among the biggest recipients in the area of farm subsidy payments from the federal government. Donald Adair received $874,522 during the period 1995 to 2011 and his son Gary received more than $1.2 million in subsidies during the period, according to a database of U.S. government data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

        So the Adair family basically bought the plant with their Federal welfare checks.

        On the other hand an interesting note is that the reason the plant was up for sale in the first place is that its former owner and many local residents were involved in an expensive lawsuit AGAINST Monsanto over the costs of the herbicide Roundup. A judge denied the local’s attempt to to go class action and so the lawsuit went into limbo. Supposedly the Adair family (which runs the town) was trying to restart the lawsuit.

        But then the plant blew up.

        1. FYI

          FYI: “Over the past several years, entities closely linked to the private security firm Blackwater have provided intelligence, training and security services to US and foreign governments as well as several multinational corporations, including Monsanto, Chevron, the Walt Disney Company, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and banking giants Deutsche Bank and Barclays, according to documents obtained by The Nation.” http://www.thenation.com/article/154739/blackwaters-black-ops

        2. Working Class Nero

          Lambert,

          The background on the Monsanto lawsuit is here:

          http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2013/04/18/before-the-blast-west-fertilizers-monsanto-lawsuit/

          For the portion on the Adair’s “supposedly” reopening the lawsuit I relied on comments by a guy called Harry079 in the comment thread in the link below. As you will see the guy is pretty impressive. I checked his comments over several threads and he seemed more interested in the truth than pushing an agenda so I went with it.

          http://www.reuters.com/article/comments/idUSBRE93M06E20130423

        3. Working Class Nero

          And yes I hinted at a conspiracy theory involving Monsanto but on further reflection one argument against Monsanto launching a bunch of Blackwater jihadis on this plant is that Obama and the Democrats + Roy Blunt just passed the Monsanto Protection Act. But I am not sure if that act would protect Monsanto against this lawsuit though.

          In any case the Monsanto angle is more interesting than boilerplate Libtard vs. Libertardian debates.

        4. bluntobj

          Um, Math:

          1.2 million over 16+ years is about $75,000 a year.

          $875,000 over 16+ years is about $55,000.

          I can also tell you are not a farmer, as subsidies include crop insurance, Cash support in bad commodity years, etc.

          My god, it’s Boss Hogg and family!!

          1. Working Class Nero

            Good point. In fact, how in the heck did these brothaz survive at all in the middle of bum f*ck nowhere with the Government only cutting them checks for $130,000 a year? Could they really park their Cadillac in the Walmart handicap parking and buy filet mignon on such poverty wages? I shudder to think of the deprivations we would go through if my son and I had to live on such a pittance.

            The tears are welling in my eyes. No wonder these staunch men had to go out and get second jobs and then ended up cutting corners on their side fertilizer business. The only conclusion is that the collateral damage is all the government’s fault for being so n-word-dly with the welfare checks to these poor men.

      2. Jimi

        I bet the owner named Adair is related to the famed”Red” Adair who used explosives to put out oil well fires, including Saddams. He sold his business to Kellog,Brown,and Root of which Haliburton owns today.

  7. Jim Haygood

    ‘This fertilizer plant and other businesses in West apparently don’t pay enough in local taxes to support a municipal fire department.’

    One is shocked … SHOCKED … to learn that some rustic lil’ dorps are too cheap to pay for unionized fire protection.

    Oh wait … we live right next to the volunteer fire department in suburban New York. And that’s despite paying very high taxes.

    Guess we’ve got a little John Galtville goin’ here right under Andrew Cuomo’s nose.

    Comforting to know that if a tragedy should occur (for instance, from the gas pipelines which run through the area), empathetic folks like Jim White will arrive afterward to help bayonet the wounded.

    1. Jerry Depew

      Small towns everywhere have volunteer fire departments. It is not an issue of low taxes, but of small population and few fires.

      1. tts

        Not all small towns have giant fertilizer plants right next to them though.

        Its a complete no brainer that the guys who owned the plant should’ve either ponied up for their own private and specially trained fire crew or paid the city enough to set up a proper fire team to deal with this sort of situation.

        That they did neither is an obvious-as-it-gets case of greed and incompetance while also showing just how stupid the “starve the beast” idea is.

          1. tts

            No it isn’t. BTW I live in a “small” town that has about 6,000 people in it and have lived in smaller before all over the US. None ever had anything like this that close to them.

        1. bluntobj

          Oh, and I think you can go look for your “Fat Banker Cat” meme elsewhere, since this was a farmer family owned business who lived in the same town.

          Not to mention that hey, it’s Spring! What happens in Spring? Yeah, fields get planted.

          That requires fertilizer.

          Which means a lot more AN on hand, more than would usually be the case.

          1. tts

            I never mentioned once that they were “fat cat bankers” so work on the reading comprehension some more dude.

            I suggested they were incompetant and/or greedy for not adequetly setting up their own private fire team or funding the public one properly to deal with this sort of thing.

            There is no way a small volunteer fire team would’ve been good enought to put out a major chemical fire at a plant like that.

            Also it doesn’t matter what the season was nor the demand for product, there was no reason for it to have that much AN on hand given the regulations of that material which have already been stated several times in the posts limit it explicitly.

  8. Nicholas Weaver

    I find this is a reprehensible straw man argument. Texas’s lack of zoning and sensible regulation is, well, an amazing extreme. But this is not the poster child.

    The town of West is 2800 people, and its in a rural area. There is no justification for a town that small to have a municipal fire department. Volunteers are the right solution given the small population and the rarity of fires these days.

    The plant itself has been there since 1962! On the rail line.

    And finally, including the Oaklahoma City bombing as the “primary substance” as ammonium nitrate is simply deceptive. Oaklahoma City was ANFO: Ammonium Nitrate PLUS FUEL OIL. There is a huge difference.

    Because, most of the time, Ammonium Nitrate on its own isn’t an explosive: http://boingboing.net/2013/04/18/ammonium-nitrate-fertilizer-is.html

    1. harry

      Sure. Volunteers are the right solution for a town with 2800 people. Unless it happens to have a f*cking enormous fertilizer plant located there. Then volunteers are a really stupid solution. One might argue that the plant should probably organise its own disaster prevention and mitigation response in such a small town.

      1. taunger

        You know, there has been all this info about OSHA and inspections, but IIRC ammonium nitrate (at least in those volumes) would be regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which would require the private group notify local fire authorities and have a plan in place. Of course, that would be for the licensed amount of chemical, not multiples thereof like in this instance.

      2. stilllaughingatyourresponse

        An enormous fertilizer plant there? LMAO. 2700 tons isnt all that much considering farmers use as much as 200 lbs per acre for fertilizer. I’d surmise that its a relatively small fertilizer plant in rural america. I also doubt there were ever zoning laws in effect when the plant was built, and I’d further bet the school was built after the plant was there. I know of NO schools in our area that wre in pre 1962 buildings. So who’s really the strawman here? Id say its the person writing the article. Sure, the plant had some violations and fines, but they weren’t issues to shut it down, were they? And my last point is I wonder why if the people of the town aren’t blaming the owner, why in god’s earth do you feel you have the right? Maybe the whole reason for the Galtism is a response to people telling others how to live, when they’re nowhere near the scene.

        1. harry

          Ok, LYAO but if thats a little itsy bitsy fertilizer plant that wiped that town out how does that change my argument in any way? Small plant, big explosion. And you think that = light touch regulation?

          “It was only a tiny nuclear weapon – no need for a professional firefighting”.

          Your second point is stupid too. Build the plant where you like. But dont build a school next to it. You can blame the town and not the plant but it remains a problem of zoning.

          I think you are a PR bot. I also think you are a crap PR bot.

          Did you used to work for Jim Henson?

        2. bluntobj

          Even better is that the plant likely had that amount of fertilizer on hand because it is Spring.

          What happens in SPring in farming country?

      3. Lambert Strether

        +1000. As is well known, it’s common practice in small towns across America to locate ginormous fertilizer plants next to nursing homes and schools.

        Speaking of fertilizer…

  9. jake chase

    Disasters happen now and then despite eagle eyed regulation in jurisdictions featuring crushing taxes. On those occasions we occasionally discover that the regulators were fast asleep and the taxes were largely wasted.

    It is too bad the need for government and its proper role cannot seem to be addressed in intelligent ways, but it can’t.

    1. harry

      You have convinced me. Lets end this crippling regulation and rely on the fellow feeling and social responsibility of fertilizer plant owners. They would never let a plant explode through stupidity or greed.

      Same with food regulations. Pointless. Or laws against theft or violence. Lets rely on on criminal’s fellow feeling and sense of social responsibility rather than wasting money on police or a criminal justice system. After all, even with all the money spent on the police we still have crime.

      Are you sure you thought this comment through properly?

      1. bluntobj

        Food regulations these days are used to enforce monopolistic control by multinational industrial food providers, and are applied viciously against all competitors. Try being a small local farmer with a great natural product trying to make any sort of way against current regulation. Examples can be provided.

        Also, when government has the ability to regulate commerce in such a way that enforces competitive advantage, money from elites and large corporations can twist “safety” into “profits” quite easily, and they have done so with a vengance, al la Glass Stegall repeal being only one example.

        1. tts

          Neither of those are effective arguments against government regulation and can be fixed with appropriate reform of the laws.

          If you go back in time far enough self regulation was common for many industries and they continually screwed things up horribly. History has shown that regulation is required over and over again. It just needs to be done properly.

      2. bluntobj

        Also, laws against theft are not regulations, last I looked, although the way they are arbitrarily applied these days makes them just about as effective.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Spare me the “disasters happen.” The owners EVADED regulations AND had violations.

  10. russell1200

    Because it is really common in open space lands for people to build in what they think is the middle of nowhere, only to find themselves surrounded by unintended neighbors.

    The people who “planned” all this, with regards to what was built where, were very likely not the people operating the plant. Regardless of who was operating the plant, or how well, you wouldn’t want a school next to a (one of many) type of plant that would require explosion proof machinery and electrical fittings. If the school board/county/town/owner/whoever put the school next to a working plant, or vice versa, that is absolutely insane.

    Lack of zoning is a huge headache, but as Apex NC found out a few years ago, zoning does not solve all of these issues. In my experience, it is usually the insurance company underwriters who catch this type of thing. Modern building codes in the United States were themselves mostly started by insurance underwriters who were faced with a lot of new technology and wanted to regularize working practices (thus the 1897 National Electric Code, and the ‘UL’ listing requirements for electrical equipment). Obviously someone dropped the ball in a big way on this one.

    1. F. Beard

      A responsible plant owner would have owned or controlled ALL the land surrounding his plant necessary for safe buffer zone.

      1. bluntobj

        Yes, I’m sure he was a fat cat banker with oodles of money to buy up all the land around him.

        Or not.

    2. dw

      well in Texas (in most cities anyway) there aren’t zoning laws. instead we have deed restrictions. but cities can control some of this by granting building permits. but i doubt that any smallish town would ever deem doing that. since the school district controls where they build schools, usually based on land they already own, and the houses and aprtments, probably had little over sight. now folks in West would only be really angry if kids had gotten killed at the school(s), but since that didnt happy (luckily for them). and not sure if the volunteer fire department or professional would have made much difference. if the firement and other first responders knew going in what they were getting into, all they could have really done was push people back, out of their homes, and business. not sure exactly what they could have done had they wanted to push them out of a nearby hospital

  11. harry

    I noticed a particular theme emerging in a few posts. The theme is that bad things sometimes happen to good people – or in this case good fertilizer plants. This is true. It is also true to say that sometimes bad things happen to bad people or fertilizer plants. How can we tell whether it is case a or case b?

    Well thats about analysing facts. Enquiries, investigations, justice etc. But I think its worth highlighting the issue of burden of proof. Before a bad thing has happened, one can argue about where the burden of proof lies. Should the plant have to submit to burdensome regulation. Is the plant compliant with the existing regulations and best safety practice etc.

    However after a fertilizer plant explodes killing 15 people, and destroying the town, most reasonable people would argue that the burden of proof has shifted. Fertilizer plants are not meant to blow up. If they have, something has clearly gone wrong. Its up to the plant owner and operator to prove they were not f*cking psychopaths who gambled with their neighbors lives for profit.

    That is, after all, the observable outcome. The only question left is whether there is a case for criminal charges.

    1. 6th generation Texan

      That street was almost certainly named for John H. Reagan, Postmaster General of the Confederate States of America and one of only two Davis administration cabinet members to serve the entire term in his office.

      Texas is an overwhlemingly rural state with many small towns. It has 254 counties, more than any other state, and even many of the couty seats have populations of under 3,000. Almost all of these small towns rely on volunteer fire departments, and many depend upon county sheriffs, constables,and the State DPS troopers as well — the household wealth/tax base is simply not capable of supporting full-time police and fire departments.

      As for all the outside “expert” criticism of how we run our affairs here — well, you don’t see hordes of Texans flooding into other states looking for jobs because they’ve so thoroughly screwed up everything at home….

      1. RanDomino

        Poor people often don’t have the option to spend thousands of dollars on equally-hopeless job prospects, especially when they don’t have any specialized skills to sell, and care more about their communities because they are often more reliant on them.

        1. Chris of Stumptown

          I don’t see how that clarifies anything. Wasn’t the point that Texas’ absolute deference to free market ideology, exemplified by naming streets after Ronald Reagan, allowed the placement of volatile chemicals in a residential neighborhood?

          Don’t get me wrong, I am all for liberal blogging, but it doesn’t help to facts wrong. Or worse, that even if the reporting is wrong, that it just doesn’t matter. Although I am glad that nobody claimed that it wasn’t intended to be a factual statement, or that they weren’t actual numbers, just hypotheticals.

      2. Harry

        I don’t have the benefit of being 6th generation Texan. But even I know that a properly function fertilizer plant is not meant to blow up killing 15 people and destroying a big block of the town.

        You probably think people are anti-Texas. Well I for one am pro-Texas. I suspect we differ in our politics. But many people differ from me in their politics. I’m just anti-fertilizer plant explosions and the mass deaths resulting from them. If you are telling me Texas is pro-explosion then I guess we will just have to agree to differ. Blow your own ass up. See if I care.

        Feel free to do things how you like. But just in case other places have a point, you should consider not placing schools in the blast zone for your hazardous enterprises.

        Its just a thought.

  12. Teejay

    While I’m in line with your criticism (“free enterprise”, deregulation, small government yada , yada, yada),a town with a population of 2,800 usually can’t afford a full time fire department. Unless you’ve examined the towns distribution of inhabitants(businesses and residences) and compared their incomes with town taxes and expenses, it seems like a stretch to conclude that they have a volunteer fire department because their are too cheap. Then again it is Texas.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      This is not a typical small town. This is a small town with a large and risky business that generates income as an immediate healthy and safety hazard.

      The problem appears to be that the town didn’t include the plant. If it had, it could have taxed the plant to provide for adequate safety measures.

      1. bluntobj

        Or taxed it to fund the school, or the water system, or the parks, police, etc.

        Then it would have been much cheaper to close it, maybe offshore it or just buy from a Big Ag producer.

        Might have saved some lives.

  13. Jhallc

    This tragedy and many others like it, resulted from many factors. The proximity of the school and neighborhood was likely brought about by encroachment over time since the plant was built in 1962. This appears to have been allowed by local zoning which should not have happened. This is a common situation here in suburbs around boston where industry or pig farms become surrounded by $1M homes. However, this does not excuse the owner from violating the regulations and he should have taken appropriate safety precautions. In fact, a fire suppression system should have been installed knowing the local fire department would be ill equipped to handle a fire at the facility. The authority to force this on the owner often may not exist at the state or local level. Hopefully, some good will come out this tragedy to prevent it from happening again.

    1. from Mexico

      It is by design, and not by accident, that this story was ignored and the Boston incident was given nonstop, 24/7 coverage day after day after day.

      The rhetorical fallacies being employed, quite deliberately I believe, are:

      1) Misleading Vividness: Describing an occurrence in vivid detail, even if it is a rare occurance, to convince someone that it is a problem, and

      2) Suppressed Evidence: Intentionally failing to use significant and relevant information which counts against one’s own conclusion.

    2. Lambert Strether

      Boston’s at one end of the Acela. West is in some flyover state out in the boonies. Also to, the only people who got killed were workers. In the workplace. All you need to know.

  14. Rob Harrington

    Fascism at it’s finest! “I pledge allegiance, to the corporate states of America. One cash cow, under godless people, invisible, with no liberty or justice for 99%!”

  15. Duncan Hare

    “The Texas tradition of low taxes is also having an impact on this tragedy. ”

    Bullshit. Texas taxes on property values and sales tax. It has a regressive tax system. The taxes are only low if your are in tne upp 10 of income.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You haven’t rebutted the point.

      Texas DOES have low taxes. The fact that they are on property and retail sales means the plant was a beneficiary of that regime.

  16. Wat Tyler

    I am going to hazzard a complete guess that ,when Adair aquired the plant, he also aquired surrounding property and then used his considerable influence as local oligarch to direct development to his property thus offsetting part (or all) of the purchase price. This is just a guess as an old Southerner; propery records should provide the facts should anyone care to look.

    Jim

  17. Maju

    What you say about zoning, Yves, is exactly what I thought when I saw the news on TV days ago. I remember well commenting it to the bartender at mid-morning coffee time: “how did they build a dangerous chemical plant just by homes and a school?!”

  18. Greg Marquez

    With respect to the building of the school so close to the fertilizer plant, another question to be asked is, who owned the property the school was built on?

  19. bob

    The way I saw the maps, the plant was before the “town”.

    But, I have a feeling that the plant owner also owned most of the land around it.

    There seems to have been a recent expanding of the town to the area around the plant. Most of the area covered by the plant proper was left out of the town. It’s striking. All of the plant, equipement and most importantly, rail road spur were left out of the town. It looks like a gerrymandered congressional district.

    And it’s simply not that big a “plant”. Most rural towns have mills just like this.

    The scary part is how big the blast was from such a small operation.

    As for a professional fire dept.- this is grasping at straws. What would have happened if they did have a pro dept with people availiable to be on scene quickly? They would be dead. The order of events was A) fire B) explosion. The people fighting the fire were the first victims.

    This is, oddly enough, the equivalent of the US WWII firebombing over Europe. The first group of planes through dropped lots of napalm and some explosive in order to get the firefighters working. The next wave targeted the firefighthers.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I’ve lived in six mill towns. And these are paper mills, a hell of a lot less risky than a friggin’ fertilizer plant.

      Never was the plant anywhere near this close to people.

      The one case where I can think of where mills are routinely located near residences is old textile mills in the Northeast and metal-bending plants like equipment manufacturers.

      1. bob

        Generally, I would call it a “feed mill”.

        Yes, they did do some mixing of fertilzer too. They didn’t make it there, they bought it by the railcar load.

        It’s a freight depot that also does mixing. They buy bulk, and mix things to customer requests.

        That’s my under standing of it anyway. And I have worked at a feed mill.

      2. bob

        For clarity-

        It is the fault of TEXAS, the state. The “plant” was on the line between two munis. The muni it was in had NOTHING anywhere near the plant, literally crickets. The neighboring muni of “west” proper had all of the danger. West had no say over what was going on 10 feet away from it’s border. The state would have.

      3. bob

        One more-

        Best, off hand guess at this point is that there was a fire at the feed mill/mixing part. That’s the big metal building next to the tracks. There was a rail car with AN next to the that. The fire heated it to the 400 degrees necessary to cause explosion.

      4. jabre

        So, Yves, let me get this right – they have a small fire department, due to low taxes and this caused the explosion and loss of life? If they had substantially higher taxes all would be well and the explosion would never have occured?

        So, how do you explain the explosion in Toulouse, France in 2001 which caused more fatalities? They have high taxes and somehow experienced a similar accident.

        I wonder if it could simply be that ammonium nitrate can be dangerous and all of the taxes at your disposal simply cannot make up for poor handling practices on the part of individuals – regardless of how much tax you impose.

        Shall we take every accident that we can find and try to tie a political agenda to the cause? Then all you need to do is add some posts with links to semi-naked celebrities and you’re ready to compete with Huffington Post.

        1. LucyLulu

          Can’t say exactly what caused the fire/explosion but it seems there sure was some contributory negligence.

          “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.

          http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-04-23/opinions/38752615_1_mine-explosion-workplace-safety-upper-big-branch-mine

          “A separate EPA program, known as Tier II, requires reporting of ammonium nitrate and other hazardous chemicals stored above certain quantities. Tier II reports are submitted to local fire departments and emergency planning and response groups to help them plan for and respond to chemical disasters. In Texas, the reports are collected by the Department of State Health Services. Over the last seven years, according to reports West Fertilizer filed, 2012 was the only time the company stored ammonium nitrate at the facility.

          It reported having 270 tons on site.

          “That’s just a god awful amount of ammonium nitrate,” said Bryan Haywood, the owner of a hazardous chemical consulting firm in Milford, Ohio. “If they were doing that, I would hope they would have gotten outside help.”

          http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/20/us-usa-explosion-regulation-idUSBRE93J09N20130420

          Is this a bug or a feature of Perry’s “business-friendly” low corporate tax, low regulation, low payroll expense environment in Texas?

  20. Alina

    This is very typical here in Texas because there are no zoning ordinances anywhere. I live in Katy and work in Houston. In Katy, we also have a volunteer fire department.

    As for low taxes, I pay much more in taxes (property and sales) than I paid when I lived in Florida or Georgia. I also pay more in utility bills even though those were deregulated with the hope that competition would lower the charges.

    All in all, Texas is a very expensive state in which to live.

  21. eyesoars

    Random notes:

    AN is not “highly explosive”. It’s among the most stable of explosives there is, which is one reason it’s so popular. Detonating it reliably requires care and modest amounts of other explosives, typically in the form of a blasting cap and dynamite. It is explosive, and it is a “high explosive”, but it is not highly explosive.

    AN is explosive on its own. Yes, the OK city bomb used AN and fuel oil, but the fuel oil component in ANFO runs 4%. It helps sensitize the AN, and it provides additional ‘oomph’ to the explosion, but AN is explosive all by itself.

    AN is usually sold in ‘prill’ form. E.g., the boing-boing article shows AN prills. The prills are small bits of AN + wax, and they keep the AN from extracting water from the air and solidifying into unhandy blocks. (In the early days, those blocks, believe it or not, were broken up with *dynamite*. The Oppau disaster involved the use of dynamite to break up chunks from a silo, and the silo and a lot more went off in response. Even more surprisingly, the plant had used dynamite to break up chunks of AN well in excess of 10,000 times w/o an AN detonation at the time of the Oppau disaster.)

    When heated, however, the wax in those prills is every bit as much fuel as fuel oil.

    In spite of being an explosive, it is remarkably safe — in small quantities. In larger (multi-ten or multi-hundred ton) quantities, even very slow rates of sponteous decomposition can work to heat the interior. Leading, eventually, to spontaneous combustion. And, once over 400F, it becomes possible for AN to detonate.

    1. Duncan Hare

      AN is not legal, as a fertilizer, in the UK, due to the authorities believing AN is dangerous.

      This has been so since I first heard of AN at school.

    2. ToivoS

      What a silly comment. AN is extremely explosive. What you are saying is that it not easily detonated. But heat from a hydrocarbon fire can detonate it. That is why AN silos are supposed to be located away from flammable material. From the looks of the fire before the explosion what blew up looked like it was inside the burning wooden warehouse. That would be a violation of safety standards in effect in Europe.

  22. casino implosion

    This Galt fellow seems to have a grudge against firefighters. The John Galt Corp was running the show at the Deutsche Bank fire in Manhattan when two firemen died.

  23. ian

    There are regulatory limits on how much of a dangerous material a factory is allowed to stockpile – even in Texas.
    There is no way that this plant was storing a legal amount of ammonium nitrate.

  24. Gil Gamesh

    I hear Rick Perry is already using the West fertilizer plant disaster as a selling point in his pitch to regulation-averse, low-wage happy business owners. New motto: “Manslaughter is Free in Texas — Just Incorporate and Come on Down”.

  25. Mac

    I wonder how many of those posting here have stopped in West.
    I always stop there for kolaches when passing they. There is an RV campground there that I have used.
    If you have no experience with beat or other small towns, you may not know so much as you claim.

    1. Bridget

      Based on the author’s complete ignorance of the role of volunteer fire departments in rural Texas, not to mention his rather grandiose notions of how tiny little towns govern themselves, I’m guessing thAt he’s never been anywhere near Texas, much less ever stopped in West.

  26. Anonymous

    That’s what Texans get for voting Republican. How do you fucking Texans like Rick Perry-style economics now? I’m sure Perry was praying for rain while the plant burned.

  27. texAss Star

    Perhaps the issue’s been raised, but skimmed over by the Evelyn Wood Great Coast Socialists shocked by fertilizer proximities: Outside of a few cities, there ain’t no zoning in the grand land of Tejas.

    Oil fields next to middle schools, refineries next to residential cracker boxes. Middle and upper classes know this and pay their premiums to become part of deed restricted communities, while the tired, huddled and poor get close-up views of the cracking stacks. Take a look at SW Houston on Google satellite.
    This modern-day absurdity is by “freedom-loving” conservative design. Developers know only morons and moochers would live somewhere where there is no zoning. They make sure guv’mint stays of the backs of thems morons in the name o’ in-amiable rights, while being sure to peddle their de facto zoning (only petunias in the buffer zone) to the captive audience of above-average barely sensible homeowners. ‘Course in Texas them Morons–above average or otherwise–vote for Cruz.

    Oh yeah, and no building codes either. House built in 1999 has 2×4 exterior walls with 1/2″ hard foam insulation and 1/8″ glass windows. That in a land where summer temps cool to 85º 70% humidity at night.There’s a freedom-loving reason why the mid/south west burns coal… Every once an awhile I hear someone say to me “well least housing is cheaper in Texas,” to which I reply: Yep, sure is.
    Moving from CA was quite an eye-opener; boil water notices for a month(private water), internet constantly down(private cable), two-hour log-jam commutes(toll roads and pay HOV lanes)– better services to be had in developing nations.

      1. Bridget

        And by the way, I’ve spent a lot of time in California. When you (hopefully) go back where you came from you should get out a little. You’d be surprised what you see when you are not basing your opinion of how people live on a Google map. You would find that the vast rural and interior portions of California are no different than those in Texas, and the poor in inner city LA are no better off than the poor of Houston. You’ll also find that plenty of urban and well to do Californians have decamped for Austin.

        And if you really want to educate yourself properly, find out a little bit more about the town of West. Including the fact that they do have zoning.

        http://www.cityofwest.com/

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