West Fertilizer Plant's Hazards Eluded Regulators For Nearly 30 Years

04/22/2013 07:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2013

WEST, Texas -- Long before it captured national headlines as the scene of a lethal industrial explosion, the fertilizer plant on the edge of this central Texas town had been a community fixture, a crucial supply depot for farmers and ranchers who worked the surrounding pastures.

No one seemed to regard it as a threat.

"It's been there so long that you just take it for granted," said Jeanette Karlik, a columnist for the local newspaper, the West News.

That same attitude -- the assumption that nothing of consequence could go wrong here -- appears to have shaped the actions of the seven or more state and federal regulatory agencies that collectively shared oversight responsibility for the plant, according to a Huffington Post investigation.

Through interviews with former regulators and community leaders, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of documents going back to 1976, a sense emerges that no institution sounded the alarm here, even as fertilizer piled up inside the plant, creating a potentially deadly tinderbox in close proximity to the town. No one effectively prepared for the emergency that eventually materialized, leaving this community uniquely vulnerable to the tragedy that unfolded last week when the plant caught fire and exploded, killing 14 people and ripping apart an apartment building, a school and dozens of homes.

In June 2011 -- less than two years before the explosion -- the private company that owns the plant, the West Fertilizer Co., filed an emergency response plan with the Environmental Protection Agency stating that there was "no" risk of fire or explosion at the facility. The worst scenario that plant officials acknowledged was the possible release of a small amount of ammonia gas into the atmosphere.

Fertilizer long has been recognized as a dangerous combustible material. One variety, ammonium nitrate -- a pellet-shaped product typically shipped in large bags -- caused the deadliest industrial accident in American history, the explosion of a ship at the port of Texas City in 1947, which took the lives of more than 500 people.

In 1995, Timothy McVeigh used about two tons of ammonium nitrate to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. As recently as 2012, the West Fertilizer plant held some 270 tons of that substance, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Yet, according to a Reuters report, the stores of ammonium nitrate here never tripped the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which apparently was unaware of the plant’s existence.

Documents reviewed by The Huffington Post indicate that the last time regulators performed a full safety inspection of the facility was nearly 28 years ago. The entity with primary authority to ensure workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, last visited in 1985, according to OSHA records.

Since then, regulators from other agencies have been inside the plant, but they looked only at certain aspects of plant operations, such as whether the facility was abiding by labeling rules when packaging its fertilizer for sale.

The most recent partial safety inspection at West Fertilizer was in 2011. That inspection, by the U.S Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Commission, led to a $5,200 fine for a variety of infractions, including failing to draft a safety plan for the transport of the large canisters of pressurized anhydrous ammonia stored on site.

In 2006, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the primary enforcer of environmental law in the state, noted that two schools were situated within 3,000 feet of the fertilizer plant. But the agency determined that "the impact potential" of an accident on the neighboring community "was low."

When assessing risks at the plant, the commission and the EPA focused solely on the potential hazards of the ammonium canisters, such as whether they were stored correctly or were leaking. The agencies did not inspect to see if other chemicals on hand might ignite and explode.

"There is really no safety assessment of these facilities when there should be," said Neil Carman, who for more than a decade inspected facilities like West Fertilizer while working for the Texas commission, before joining the Sierra Club, the national environmental advocacy organization.

Neither Donald Adair, the plant's owner, nor Ted Uptmore, its manager, could be reached for comment. Adair released a statement on Friday, writing: "My heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community." He added that "the tragedy will continue to hurt deeply for generations to come."

The statement said the plant's owners would limit comments in the weeks and months ahead, "out of respect for the investigative process."

As investigators combed through the blackened rubble of the factory over the weekend, and as the citizens of West began to mourn their dead, many questions remained about the disaster. Still unclear was how the fire started, whether the plant's materials had been properly stored and protected, and whether local firefighters had responded appropriately.

Fire safety experts suspect that a fire ignited the ammonium nitrate pellets stored on site, and that in turn may have caused the pressurized contents of cannisters of another ammonia substance to expand and explode outward with tremendous force. Investigators have not yet released a determination of the cause.

But one thing had become painfully clear: The community-wide notion that an explosion at the plant was not something to worry about was proven tragically wrong.

George Smith, an osteopathic physician who serves as West’s director of emergency medical services, told The Huffington Post that what unfolded here Wednesday night was never contemplated as his team of volunteer ambulance crews readied themselves to respond to calls for help.

"No explosions like this ever fit into the drills or anything like that," Smith said, his face marked by cuts from glass and debris that hit him during the explosion. "It never crossed our minds."

FLEE OR FIGHT

Texas -- a state famous for its size and stature -- claims an outsize share of the country's industrial accidents.

As of May 2012, the state held 1,827 facilities deemed at risk of toxic or flammable chemical accidents, about one-tenth of all those in the nation, according to data from the EPA’s Risk Management Program as tabulated by the Right-to-Know Network, a non-profit government watchdog. Yet the state was responsible for nearly 50 percent of the evacuations and property damage costs caused by accidents at such plants over the previous five years, according to a Huffington Post review of the data.

The owners of industrial facilities like West Fertilizer are required by state and federal law to notify local and state authorities when dangerous compounds are on site, so that emergency coordinators can incorporate the hazards into response plans. But in the case of small towns such as West -- population 2,807 -- fire and emergency medical crews are generally of the volunteer variety, and resources can be scarce. Even the best-prepared emergency response crews can face stark choices about how to approach dangerous situations.

In 2009, a spark from a welder's torch ignited a fire that quickly consumed El Dorado Chemical Co., near the city of Bryan, Texas, sending billowing clouds of toxic smoke into the atmosphere. El Dorado also stored large quantities of ammonium nitrate.

Chuck Frazier, the emergency management coordinator for Brazos County, which includes Bryan, said first responders quickly made the decision to evacuate the surrounding area rather than stay and fight the fire. The risk of failing to contain the blaze was too great, they determined. Authorities ordered more than 60,000 local residents to evacuate, and dozens were admitted to area hospitals for smoke inhalation and other respiratory and eye problems.

Five years earlier, a fire had destroyed a branch of the same company in Greenville, Texas, prompting the evacuation of an elementary school.

Stephen Cook, the chief training officer at a firefighter training facility at McLennan Community College in nearby Waco, said that first responders taking on scenarios like the fires in Bryan and in West confront what seem like impossible choices: With inadequate information and variables such as wind and air temperature potentially rendering their decisions wrong, they are forced to make quick determinations about whether to try to extinguish the fire or to evacuate nearby residents. Both options present serious hazards, he said, and the reality may be that there is time for neither.

"It’s like you're on the top of Mt. Everest and someone pulls a gun on you," he said. "You can jump or get shot. There are no good choices."

Smith, West’s director of emergency medical services, also oversees the West Rest Haven Nursing Home. He helped evacuate 127 patients there as the fire raged at the nearby plant. All the residents made it out before the blast, but Smith wasn't so lucky. The explosion sent a shock wave through the building and the roof collapsed on him.

The only thing that saved him was a counter at the nurse's station, which shielded him from the beams that fell from above. "God said, 'You have more work to do, my son,'" Smith said.

Next, he sprang into action as the EMS director, frantically sending text and radio messages to any jurisdiction that would listen. Volunteer firefighters from the town, along with emergency responders and an off-duty Dallas firefighter, converged on the plant. Ten of those first responders died in the explosion.

"Some people think we're crazy, because when everybody else is running from something, we're running into it," Smith said of his EMS colleagues. "We know in our hearts that anything we do is dangerous. We're saving lives. We're doing God's work as far as I'm concerned."

Should the authorities in West have evacuated rather than battle the blaze? Experts say that question cannot be answered absent a full investigation, and even then it may never be possible to determine with authority what went wrong here. Fires at industrial facilities are inherently dangerous and can have unexpected consequences.

Frazier, the emergency management coordinator in Brazos county, was unwilling to second-guess his counterparts in West. There was but one certain difference between the 2009 explosion in Bryan and the one that killed people here: "We got lucky,” he said, "and they didn't."

'OUR NEIGHBOR'

The fertilizer facility in West had always been a locally owned business, ingrained in the community like the bakeries and restaurants that have graced the downtown streets for generations.

Small Texas towns are known for being close-knit. But the kinship is even greater in West, where families share the bonds of Czech heritage, handed down from the some of the original Texas settlers.

A local family opened the fertilizer plant in 1962 to help nearby corn, cotton and sorghum farmers who needed someone to supply fertilizer and other farm equipment in the area. West is located on a major north-south railway, making the location ideal as a supply base for needed chemicals and compounds for a broad area.

"It was really a necessity for this community," said Anthony Rejcek, a third-generation farmer whose family has done business with the plant since the 1960s. "There's really nothing else like it. People come from 50 miles away to do business here."

When the plant opened, it was located far from West's downtown area, mostly surrounded by open farmland. But over the years the town expanded north, with more and more houses popping up in the shadow of the plant.

Town leaders built an intermediate school about a tenth of a mile across the railroad tracks from the plant. The nursing home also sits within eyesight of the plant, part of the gradual expansion of homes and businesses. Because the facility was built so long ago, local zoning regulations primarily governed what could be built near it.

Ed Sykora, who owns a local Ford dealership in West and has been displaced from his home since Wednesday, was on the town school board and city council for more than a dozen years. He doesn't remember any discussion of whether it made sense to build new homes and a new school so close to the fertilizer plant.

"The land was available out there that way; they could get sewer and other stuff that way without building a bunch of new lines," Sykora recalled. "There never was any thought about it. Maybe that was wrong."

Rejcek, the farmer, said he remembered some in town who worried about building a school near the plant. "There have always been questions about that," he said, calling that decision "a mistake."

Yet even in recent reports, state regulators saw no problems for the schools and houses nearby. For most people living near the plant, the only concern through the years was the smell of ammonia, which would periodically cause a nuisance if there were leaks in containers. Records from the Commission on Environmental Quality show several odor complaints dating back to the 1970s. But most said the smell only caused problems every few years.

Residents were comfortable living next to the plant because it was such a cornerstone of the community, run by locals who went to the same churches, shopped in the same stores and sent their children to the same schools.

"It's not like some corporation came in here and built a facility," said Sykora. "It's always been our neighbor."

Ted Uptmore, who has managed the plant since 1964, also owns the West Auction, a livestock business in town. Donald Adair, a longtime area farmer who bought the fertilizer plant in 2004, has served on the school board and is widely respected by town leaders.

Some in West recalled that Adair, who was already getting older, bought the plant in 2004 because it was rumored to shut down. Adair didn't want the town to be without such a crucial business, said Rejcek.

"I told him, 'Somebody your age should be selling stuff, not buying stuff,'" Rejcek recalled. "He said, 'I'm not doing this for myself.'"

Even in the wake of a disaster that touched almost everyone in West, many residents who were interviewed harbored no ill will toward the plant owners.

"These are good people, and I feel so sorry for Mr. Adair," said Jeanette Karlik, the local newspaper columnist, who grew up in West and returned to take care of her ailing mother in the late 1990s. "I know his heart is heavy because of what happened."

As investigators focus on pinpointing the cause of the accident, and whether there was any negligence, many locals stand in support of the plant owners.

"I don't question it. There is no way that there was a problem there where they knew something was going to happen," said Sykora. "That's not the people they are. They are good Church of Christ people. If [Adair] had an inkling, he would have shut that thing down."

'WILLFULLY OFF THE GRID'

Among the at least seven state and federal regulatory agencies under whose purview the West Fertilizer plant fell, none appears to have exerted a sense of primary authority. Records suggest that oversight was spotty at best.

Neil Carman, the clean air director at the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, previously spent more than a decade inspecting facilities like West Fertilizer while working for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Unlike large industrial plants, which the commission inspects once a year, small operators like West Fertilizer are inspected every five years or so, unless there is a specific complaint, he said. He described oversight of such small facilities as "minimal."

In 2006, inspectors from Carman's former agency responded 11 days after a report of ammonia odor at West Fertilizer and discovered that the company had failed to register two giant, 12,000-gallon anhydrous ammonia tanks as required. The manager, Uptmore, said he thought the company was grandfathered into air quality regulations and didn't need a permit to store the gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency subsequently fined the plant $2,300 for failing to turn in a risk-management plan for dealing with the tanks.

None of these agencies, however, regulate ammonium nitrate. The Texas Department of State Health Services was aware of the presence of large volumes of ammonium nitrate at the plant, and collected data on the hazardous substance as required. But according to a Reuters story, the plant owners never alerted the Department of Homeland Security, which tracks and inspects facilities to make sure the potentially deadly chemical is stored safely.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, Carrie Williams, wrote in an email that the agency's role is only to provide data on chemicals for more than 65,000 facilities across the state. Williams said the agency is not required to report ammonium nitrate quantities to DHS. "Our authority does not include oversight of the amounts, locations or types of chemicals that may be stored there," she wrote.

It's unclear whether DHS, had it known about the ammonium nitrate, would have required additional safety measures and installation of protective barriers that could have prevented the explosion, or limited the damage in West.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement that it seemed as if the plant was "willfully off the grid."

Carman, the former staffer for the agency, said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the EPA focus their attention on potential violations of the Clean Air Act; under that standard, small plants like the one in West pose much less of a threat than, say, a huge chemical factory in Houston, he said.

But a smaller threat is not the same as no threat, as residents here learned last week.

"We've done a lot of crying," said George Smith, the West EMS director. "And we've got a lot of crying in the days ahead."

Caroline Fairchild contributed reporting.

This story appears in Issue 46 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 26.

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