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.
- 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.
- West Texas Plant Told The EPA It Had ‘No Risk’ For Explosion (crooksandliars.com)
- Texas explosion: fatalities confirmed at fertiliser plant – live – The Guardian (guardian.co.uk)
- What is anhydrous ammonia? (wptv.com)
- West, Texas Explosion: The Price of Poor Regulation and Rick Perry’s Budget Cuts? (nomadicpolitics.blogspot.com)
- Texas officials knew in 2006 that West Fertilizer’s tanks of anhydrous ammonia were near school, homes (thescoopblog.dallasnews.com)
- West, Texas mayor: ‘I ask for your prayers’ (whas11.com)
- Texas blast: seven questions raised by the West disaster (theweek.co.uk)
- Fertilizer Plant Explodes in Texas: ‘This Town Is Hurt Really Bad’ (theatlanticwire.com)
- More from WordPress blogs (a lot of photos)