No one savvy about the embarrassing twists and turns inherent in many civil lawsuits will be surprised by the city of West’s $10.44 million settlement sans trial with defendants linked to the deadly April 2013 fire and explosion at West Fertilizer Co. Speculation is that the defendants — CF Industries, El Dorado Chemical and Adair Grain Inc. — wanted to avoid further public exposure and debate concerning not only the volatile nature of certain chemical fertilizers but arguably less-than-safe storage of such materials at West Fertilizer Co.
And, yes, the city of West also may have wanted to settle this case quietly, especially after nearly five years of pain, grief, reflection and rebuilding. Some critics insist past city and county leaders — some of them surely long dead — should have been more vigilant over the years as residences sprouted around West Fertilizer Co. This and other lawsuits offer sobering lessons for community leaders here and elsewhere and the agri-business industry. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
As Trib courthouse reporter Tommy Witherspoon reports, the lawsuit filed on behalf of West claimed the defendants were negligent in selling or distributing the ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer, that they failed to properly warn of the dangers associated with handling and storage of the product and never should have sold the product to West Fertilizer Co. The defendants disputed these claims, saying they were not responsible for the fire or explosion.
During the 2015 legislative session, state lawmakers failed to fully embrace some bold suggestions for regulatory improvement, including allowing the state fire marshal to craft rules for plants storing dangerous chemicals — that is, turning over the job to someone of the same stripe and dedication as the brave firefighters killed in the blast the night of April 17, 2013. We can only hope the dollar amounts in some of these suits prompt the agricultural industry to do what legislators themselves could not — press for comparatively cheap and simple safeguards such as sprinkler systems.