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Why the West Fertilizer Explosion Could Have Happened Anywhere

A serious commitment to oversight could prevent fatal industrial disasters



G. J. McCARTHY Corbis

Before it exploded this spring “like a nuclear bomb,” as the mayor of West, Tex., put it, the West Fertilizer plant was an otherwise unremarkable piece of the American landscape. It sat just across from a subdivision in this town of 2,800 people. The West Intermediate School's baseball diamond was close enough to deliver the occasional foul ball. Officially, the plant held 27 tons of anhydrous ammonia. It also held, out of sight and mind, 270 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate. The blast damaged or destroyed 150 buildings, including the school and a nursing home. Fifteen people died.

The U.S. is home to around 6,000 fertilizer retail and production plants, 13,500 domestic chemical production plants and tens of thousands of mining and petroleum sites. We would like to assume that most of these facilities adhere to the rules that have been designed to minimize the danger to workers and neighboring communities. But the tale of West Fertilizer exposes a perilous status quo—a system in which potentially dangerous industrial sites have been trusted to police themselves.

Managers at the West plant never registered the ammonium nitrate with Homeland Security, even though the stockpile contained 1,300 times the amount that triggers a mandatory review. The most recent emergency planning report that the company filed with the Environmental Protection Agency stated there was no fire or explosion risk at the plant. Owners did inform Texas regulators about the ammonium nitrate, but inspectors issued nothing more than the occasional wrist slap.

In theory, this kind of case is where the federal government should bolster weak local oversight. But officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last checked in on West in 1985. At that time, inspectors discovered five serious violations. The plant's management paid the $30 fine.

The incineration of this small town didn't have to happen. Yet such incidents will likely occur again, in Texas and well beyond it. The problem is not a lack of government. It's a lack of governance. It is a direct consequence of the well-documented late 20th-century allergy to effective regulation of the hazardous materials, energy and transportation industries in the U.S.

A particularly effective part of this push against regulation has been the reduction or elimination of inspectors who can monitor sites in the field. Homeland Security employs 242 people to oversee thousands of chemical plants; osha relies on about 2,200 inspectors to safeguard 130 million workers at more than eight million work sites in the U.S. Reports suggest that key oil and gas production states such as Texas, Pennsylvania and New Mexico each employ as few as a dozen inspectors to monitor thousands of active drilling sites. The 2013 federal budget sequester is further slicing away at these numbers.

One Texas politician said this spring that it was too early to draw conclusions about any additional regulations to address the West explosion. In a sense, he's right. Regulations abound, but they too often go overlooked. Increased staffing for inspectors at strapped federal agencies would curb the buck-passing, backslapping and voluntary reporting that apparently made it easy for West Fertilizer to skate past local regulators.

There is a particular meme in American politics today that regulation is an unnecessary burden—red tape that holds back the entrepreneurial spirit. But we should not forget that large industrial operations such as petroleum refineries, chemical plants and fertilizer facilities are as dangerous as they are common. A problem in one can reach far beyond its chain-linked perimeter.

Ronald Reagan said that the key to reducing the risk of a nuclear mishap was to “trust, but verify.” Most local industries may be worthy of the trust their communities place in them. Still, we must verify.

This article was originally published with the title "Exploded Trust."

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