The fertilizer plant that was the site of a deadly explosion Wednesday was operating under permit rules intended to protect the surrounding neighborhood, but a fire there earlier this year caused the evacuation of a nearby school.
West Fertilizer, the McLennan County area’s leading source of agriculture fertilizer, was operating under a 2006 permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that required a spray system to guard against the danger of leaks from the tanks of anhydrous ammonia, according to the Dallas Morning News.
A TCEQ inspector in 2007 noted that the plant was near two schools and within 350 feet of a home, but described the impact potential of the plant as “low,” the newspaper reported.
The company at 1471 Jerry Mashek Drive and its adjacent business, Adair Grain, are owned by Donald R. Adair, according to the McLennan County Clerk’s Office.
A fire at the plant earlier this year caused officials at nearby West Intermediate School to evacuate the campus, but a memo from West ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford shows school officials had no prior warning of it.
Crawford wrote to parents in February that when school officials called 9-1-1, the dispatcher had no knowledge of what turned out to be a controlled burn of pallets and brush on the property. It is not yet known what started Wednesday’s fire that erupted in a massive explosion just before 8 p.m.
The company mixes dry fertilizer and stores anhydrous ammonia in large tanks. Anhydrous ammonia is known to be explosive at high temperatures. It is used in making ammonium nitrate, the key ingredient in the 1995 bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City and the cause of the 1947 Texas City explosion that killed more than 580 people.
McLennan County AgriLife Extension Agent Shane McLellan said the anhydrous ammonia was trucked in, stored in tanks and dispensed directly to farmers under tight regulations. It was not mixed with other ingredients, he said.
“You have to have a license to buy it, and they do a background check,” he said. “The truck drivers all have to have hazmat certifications.”
He said West Fertilizer ran a well-managed operation, and he was surprised to see an accident there.
“They’re business people in West who’ve been there all their lives, born and raised there, and involved in a lot of community things,” he said.