West, Texas disaster: Emergency response can’t save as many lives as prevention


West Fertilizer Co. ruins after an April 17, explosion, in West, Texas.  Reuters photo by Mike Stone, via Business Insider.

West Fertilizer Co. ruins after an April 17, explosion, in West, Texas. Reuters photo by Mike Stone, via Business Insider.

A nasty fire, a small, brave band of volunteer firefighters, a commonly-used but very dangerous agriculture chemical, unfortunate winds, inadequate emergency response equipment, and bad siting, seem to have combined to make yet another cautionary tale from yet another explosion disaster in Texas (remembering the natural gas explosion in New London in 1937 that killed 300, mostly school kids, and the Texas City fertilizer explosions of 1947 that killed 576).

133 people were evacuated — safely, we hope — from the nearby nursing home.  The middle school caught fire, and school has been cancelled for at least two days.  166 people are known to have been treated for injuries at hospitals in three or four different counties, in a radius of 100 miles of West.  How many are dead?  That tragic toll is not yet known. (As of noon April 18, wire stories say “as many as 15 killed,” a wonderfully small number considering the size of the blast.

Gov. Rick Perry asks people to pray.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, a good guy, posted a Red Cross help link on his Facebook site — so people can donate blood. (Here’s the link:  http://www.redcross.org/news/article/West-TX-Disaster-Response-FAQs )

My faith in Texas’s governor and attorney general doing the right thing is very, very low.  So I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Watson, on his Facebook site, if more can’t be done, to prevent these disasters and their large impacts.

Is the Attorney General, Greg Abbott, or the governor going to do anything to check on the other fertilizer plants in Texas?  Texas CEQ asks to be alerted if anhydrous ammonia plants are within 3,000 feet of a school.  Two schools, a nursing home, and many homes were well within that radius of West Texas Fertilizer.

The West Disaster should be a lesson — but is anyone in state government learning from it?

Fire departments need special equipment and special training to fight these fires — but Gov. Perry whacked the hell out of the money to pay for volunteer fire departments, like West’s, two years ago.

Mr. Watson, who is looking out for Texans, for our kids, for our businesses and communities?

These disasters are preventable, almost always; there are steps that can be taken to insure that damages and injuries will be kept to a minimum in the event of a disaster.

Who will step up to lead the disaster prevention efforts that were not followed prior to this disaster?

  • School siting needs to be checked, as well as other facilities.  West Independent School District (ISD) has five schools.  Two, the high school and the middle school, were close enough to the fertilizer plant to be damaged.  The middle school’s roof was crushed in by the blast, and heat from the blast appears to have started a fire at the school — it appears a complete loss.  The roof of the new high school collapsed.  At least 40% of the school facilities in West were wiped out.  Had the incident occurred during school hours, the scope of the human disaster would have been incalculable.
    From Google Maps, it’s clear the school is less than 100 feet from the Adair facility, and probably less than 300 feet from the storage tanks that exploded.  Texas Commission on Environmental Quality asks anhydrous ammonia handling facilities to state whether there are any schools within 3,000 feet of the facility, a distance I presume is related to blast radius.   A nursing home, and the town hospital, also were within that radius.  TCEQ rules appear designed to stop emissions of gases that pollute, and not designed to promote safety.  Other than the federal OSHA regulations, it is unclear to me whether any state agency actually looks at safety of these facilities.  If so, they were asleep on this one; this facility was sited in 1962, but even then it was too close to residences and schools.

    English: Firefighters Memorial in Texas City

    Firefighters Memorial in Texas City; the 1947 explosions killed every member of the volunteer fire department. Photo from Wikipedia

  • Fire department fire fighting capabilities and training must be up to date.  West has a volunteer fire department.  Two years ago, at the request of Gov. Perry, state funding to pay volunteer fire fighters, train them, and equip them, was slashed (oddly at the height of wildfire season).  Sad experience in the Texas City disaster should have been a clarion notice to all Texas firefighters NOT to use water to fight fires near or in ammonia concentrations (576 people died in 1947 when water was used in a futile attempt to distinguish fire in a fertilizer loaded ship; water contributes to the explosive qualities of the stuff).  Most volunteer fire departments in these small, agricultural-support towns, will have nothing but water to use to snuff out fires — even if that’s the wrong stuff to use.  In any case, training should be done so that especially volunteer fire fighters know when to run and when to fight, and what to use, when they fight.
  • Ammonia storage tanks and transfer facilities are common in agricultural areas.  How many local governments really have an idea of the dangers inherent with these businesses.  How many other facilities like the one in West are there dotted around Texas, where fertilizer compounds were unloaded from railroad cars and stored, and then loaded into tanks for farmers to take to their fields?

We don’t need to over react.  Compared to, say, gasoline, anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrates are pikers.  Gasoline is more explosive than TNT, loaded with different carcinogens, and its fumes are toxic to almost all forms of life.  And yet we safely move millions of gallons of the stuff every day, and you sit with about 12 gallons of the stuff under the rear seat of your car.  Hazardous substances can be handled safely.

Safe handling of hazardous and poisonous materials requires thought, education, and the spreading of information.

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13 Responses to West, Texas disaster: Emergency response can’t save as many lives as prevention

  1. James Kessler says:

    I suggest to _jim that he learn about the Washburn mill explosion at http://www.mnhs.org/library/tips/history_topics/73washburn.html

    There’s also a museum that can be found at, I think, http://www.millcitymuseum.org

    If he cares to come up to Minnesota to visit the museum I’m sure they give tours. He can learn the consequences of what happens when government lets the rich and businesses run amuck. Or is it amok?

    Like

  2. James Kessler says:

    Consider it a temporary year long honorarium. (sp?)

    Like

  3. jsojourner says:

    Hi James!

    Just to correct the record, I’m not ordained. That’s about a year away. :-)

    But it does get confusing with all the Jims and Jameses around here. I propose we rename Ed. How about Jimbo?

    Jim

    Like

  4. James Kessler says:

    What amazes me is if a group of terrorists had used that fertilizer to detonate a massive bomb the gop would be falling over itself coming up with new laws and regulations to prevent it.

    But that it’s a corporation who, in a fit of criminal negligence, detonated a bomb..the Gop is ever so eager to cover the business owners arse along with the arqases of the politicians that let it happen.

    Like

  5. James Kessler says:

    To quote Pastor Jim (a name I use just to differentiate) Thank you for your suggestion that we not abandon modern lifestyles in favor of a return to the 18th century. I am in complete and total agreement with that concept.

    Then the other Jim should stop supporting the gop if he doesn’t want to go back to living how it was in the 18th century. After all..they didn’t have safety and environmental regulations back then. Nor did they have the safety net…and there wasn’t a middle class back then..you were either rich..or you were varying degrees of poor.

    It’s the gop that wants to send us back to then18th century.

    Like

  6. jsojourner says:

    Good afternoon, _Jim!

    Thank you for your suggestion that we not abandon modern lifestyles in favor of a return to the 18th century. I am in complete and total agreement with that concept.

    I wish you were.

    The call for more regulation, monitoring and sanction at all levels (federal, state and local) hardly finds its origin in the 18th century. (Aside from the obvious call contained in the Preamble, which conservatives pretend is not there.)

    The idea that government needs to monitor and regulate business has blood red roots in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ever heard of the Pemberton Mill disaster? The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire? The Grover Shoe Plant Fire? The Washburn Mill Explosion? The New London School Explosion? How about the Scofield Mine Disaster? The Cherry Mine Disaster? The Collinwood School Fire? The Iroquois Theater Fire?

    Google is your friend, _Jim.

    All these events were preventable and led to greater regulation, inspection and monitoring. It is modernity that drives regulation. Out of modernity came EPA, OSHA, NRC and the Clean Air & Clean Water Act. The people advocating regulation and accountability are not the ones longing for a return to the bad old days. That would be the Tea Party. That would be Governor Goodhair. And Senators Cornyn and Cruz. And Congressman Gohmert. And Congressman Barton, who suggested America owed BP “an apology”.

    You suggest that I might be condemning Democrats as well as Republicans? They hooray. A rat is a rat. And those who oppose regulation, regardless of party, are rats. Ed will be pleased I used that word as opposed to what I was thinking.

    But by all means _Jim…do continue. Tell us all about free market pixie dust and the noble intentions of big business.

    I love a good story.

    Jim

    Like

  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Jim, the city of West, Texas, started out in 1852. The fertilizer facility grew out of an agriculture support company (feed store, essentially) established in 1962. So the town was there for 110 years before the company was.

    While the company was next to the railroad tracks, that was to deliver feed and take grains and other products away to market — a purpose that had ended rail use long ago (look at the photos — there were no sidetracks for loading and unloading cars).

    Hazardous stuff is under several jurisdictions, but the counties are charged with making evacuation and firefighting plans. Hadn’t been done. The enforcer of those rules is the executive branch — Gov. Perry — and the Department of Public Safety. Gov. Perry has reduced staff to handle emergencies and to inspect.

    Probably more critically, Perry has hammered away at the volunteer fire departments. During a crush of wildfires in Texas two years ago, Perry proposed to decimate new hiring for volunteer fire departments. He proposed to zero out new equipment and hazardous materials fire training — and got most of that from the Texas Lege.

    So, not only did Rick Perry fail to take the steps to assure the safety of the citizens of West, he actively pursued downgrading their fire department so it wouldn’t be able to handle such an emergency.

    Yesterday we got the news that the fertilizer company had $1 million in liability insurance — current estimates are pushing past $50 million in damage, and that doesn’t count the lives of the 15 people killed.

    Yes, it looks now as if it were the ammonium nitrate that exploded, and not the anhydrous stuff in liquid form.

    15 people are dead. The town of West is a wreck. Three of the school districts five schools were severely damaged, at least one a complete loss, and maybe two.

    That “deregulation and low taxes” thing isn’t working out for real Americans living in West.

    Like

  8. James Kessler says:

    Texas also has responsibility for regulatory and inspections in it’s own borders. And you mean the epa and osha that republicans have spent the last 13 plus years underfunding and dismantling?

    And gee..I wonder if the firefighters dealing with the fire would have been better equipped to deal with the fire if governor hairpiece hadn’t spent the last few budgets gutting Texas budget for firefighting by 75%?

    Kindly quit making James’ everywhere appear stupid, Jim.

    Like

  9. James Kessler says:

    Jim, it doesn’t matter which was there first. The town and state shouldn’t have been stupid enough to allow residential development that close. and that because of perry’s dismantling of Texas regulatory system also is to blame for not catching this

    But the factory is still at fault for having nearly 1000 times the amount of that fertilizer on site then they were legally allowed to, not reporting that they did have that amount to the feds and then lying when they told the authorities that there was no chance of an explosion.

    But don’t worry, I know you won’t let the facts distract you from your inane need to cover Governor Hairpieces fat rear end.

    That explosion is what happens when you remove government oversight in a fit of stupid demagoguery.

    Like

  10. _Jim says:

    jsojourner says May 5, 2013 at 1:53 pm:

    It hardly matters that the plant came first. It’s really a “chicken or the egg” thing. Texas believes in free market fairy dust and little or no regulation of anything. (Except vaginas, of course.)

    People died because the plant was not required to meet basic safety protocol and because there hadn’t been meaningful inspections in years.

    But fear not. The Bangladeshization of America will continue unabated as long as people take the Tea Party and its toxic ideas seriously.

    Jim

    – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    The above passes for ‘enlightened liberal/progressive argument’?

    Please, EPA and OSHA are (this may be news to you) FEDERAL agencies; Which of these two (or did both) fail during safety assessments and or inspections of that facility?

    And can you PLEASE CITE what “basic safety protocol” was violated instead of just mouthing the words? Some of us would dearly like to know …

    How come _no_ details have yet been released about the ‘chain of events’ that transpired *yet* you are all-over prescribing who and what are to blame?

    Shame on you. Jumping to unfounded conclusions and no doubt blaming some of your liberal (and democrat) brethren in the process (not everyone in tx is a repub).

    Can’t we wait until some facts surface before we all call for a ban on modern lifestyles and all head back into a simplified agrarian lifestyle situated in the late 1700’s?

    _Jim (note the ‘underscore’ in the nick)

    Like

  11. jsojourner says:

    It hardly matters that the plant came first. It’s really a “chicken or the egg” thing. Texas believes in free market fairy dust and little or no regulation of anything. (Except vaginas, of course.)

    People died because the plant was not required to meet basic safety protocol and because there hadn’t been meaningful inspections in years.

    But fear not. The Bangladeshization of America will continue unabated as long as people take the Tea Party and its toxic ideas seriously.

    Jim

    Like

  12. _Jim says:

    PS. The ‘plant’ *is* located outside the city (or township or whatever) boundary as well.

    But, I don’t think facts ‘matter’ much when looking to appoint blame, right?

    _Jim

    Like

  13. _Jim says:

    Of course, little ‘facts’ like the town springing up around the fertilizer distribution facility (which had purposely located next to the railroad tracks there) and not the other way around (the ‘plant’ springing up near the ppl) won’t make much difference if your goal is to smear the state’s gov or Lt gov … right?

    Undue attention is also being paid to the anhydrous ammonia which distracts from the REAL problem which was the ammonium nitrate detonation. You realize, of course, what it takes to ignite anhydrous ammonia? Wait, you’re more ‘political’ than technical so I withdraw the question (lest you be ‘shown up’ and this comment not get published) … “always make the host kook good”.

    _Jim

    Like

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