While talking with residents of West in the wake of the deadly ammonium nitrate blast that three years ago today reduced part of that town of some 2,800 to smithereens, one fellow remarked glumly to me that he hoped the politicians wouldn’t use the explosion as an excuse to pass a bunch of regulations.
I’ve had several occasions to ponder this remark. Such as when the president of the United States led state and local leaders and our community in paying tribute to the dead, including 12 first responders killed in the explosion. Such as when millions in taxpayer dollars were allocated to rebuild much of West.
Such as when our state lawmakers — bowing to the concerns of agri-business lobbyists that sprinkler systems were too onerous an expense to demand of businesses storing ammonium nitrate — passed weakened reforms in 2015, secure in the knowledge of how many of their constituents happen to be wired politically.
While that comment in spring 2013 bothered me (and I’ve heard others repeat it), it didn’t exactly surprise me. Texans’ DNA causes them to just naturally resist government putting conditions and restrictions on them, especially in the pursuit of a living. However chemically volatile, fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate is seen in our stretches as spurring the vitality of crops. Yes, FGAN (as the chemists call it) brought death and destruction on the evening of April 17, 2013. But it also brings life in many different ways, ranging from produce in the fields to sustenance of the family circle.
Yet in another way, such an attitude signals that certain risks are entirely acceptable, including the perils of storing unpredictable fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate in wooden bins near other combustible materials in a building without so much as a sprinkler system. And if lives are lost — well, in Texas that’s just part of life. Or is it?
While a handful of folks in the town of West, including Mayor Tommy Muska, courageously urged regulatory reforms to prevent other families in other Texas towns from suffering such horrifying losses of life and property, some in West focus instead on loss and rebirth. They understandably carry blazing torches for the brave first responders lost that day. And, to their credit, they have redoubled their efforts to build a new and even better West. And they’re clearly succeeding.
If they have a message for the rest of us, it’s that it’s time to move on.
Listening to a long presentation about the blast by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in January, I couldn’t help but wonder at the litany of regulatory recommendations for everything from often overburdened volunteer fire departments to state and federal oversight agencies choking on their own bureaucracy. The report is as impressive as it is bewildering.
In our political environment, one party now sees regulation as disdainful. Even among those who believe in regulation of chemical storage there exists a skepticism about whether state and federal agencies can do the job competently, let alone sufficiently.
In the end, the real burden must fall on the individual companies storing these dangerous chemicals, whether ammonium nitrate or something else. Do the owners and business managers there have a true appreciation of the communities in which they seek to thrive? Is the safety of company employees and their neighbors down the street or across town worth the added expense of incorporating safety measures, even if almighty government doesn’t demand it?
One of the most damning facts about all this: A few years before the 2013 explosion, the West Fertilizer Company was dropped by an insurer for failing to address safety concerns identified in loss-control surveys. And the company that insured West Fertilizer Company at the time of the deadly blast “did not appear to have conducted its own safety inspections of the facility,” according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. While the blast did an estimated $230 million in damage, flattening homes, schools and a nursing home, the West Fertilizer Company was insured for $1 million. By now, federal taxpayers have paid more than $16 million in disaster assistance.
Evidence suggests the West Fertilizer Company didn’t weigh undeniable risks to the surrounding community as folks moved in around it and counted it as a neighbor that would risk no harm to them. A lesson exists in all this that goes beyond government regulations and relies heavily on the wisdom, integrity and vigilance of those who count on our daily business. In return, they should be good corporate neighbors as part of the bargain.