The West TX fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 15, injured 200, destroyed two schools, a block of apartments and many nearby single homes, somehow got lost between the Boston Marathon bombing and the Oklahoma tornado. We continued to follow the story because it involved a very common agricultural fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, known until the end of WWII primarily as "the principal ingredient in making explosives," according to Michael Pollan.
The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food, can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over from making explosives to making chemical fertilizer. After World War II, the government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America's forests with the surplus chemical, to help the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: spread the
ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on the poison gases developed for war) is the product of the government's effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, "We're still eating the leftovers of World War
II." -- "What's eating America," Smithsonian, Michael Pollan, JUly 2006, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/presence-jul06.html#ixzz2TuK...
The Adair Grain Co. was stockpiling fertilizer for spring sales, something happened, 10-percent of the population was killed or injured, a considerable part of West Tx was blown away and its groundwater may be contaminated. This is one of the smaller ammonium nitrate disasters (in peace time) in the history of the production of this not-terribly-stable compound.
The investigation has wandered here and there threading a path through what are obviously political obstacles in Austin and Washington, backed by hard and hard-to-trace cash. This one is going to go down, at best, like the Massey coal-mine fiasco.
We can guaran-damn-tee that because the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has entered the investigative turf war, fresh from the spectacular wholesale gun sale with special discounts to cartels called "Fast and Furious," and not long enough or far away enough from West TX for us to forget the massacre at the Branch Davidian men, women and children at Waco. The ATF brings to the investigation a "culture" of stupidity, brutality, incompetence and corruption.
We can only hope that after the farce of government investigations is concluded, the amount of the bribes these Adairs paid added to some damages from successful civil suits bankrupts the owners to the seventh generation.
Another group of agricultural inputs, the organophosphates, closely related to several Nazi nerve gases. While its effects are not often fatal on agricultural workers, the oroganophosphateds have killed people but more often permanently toxify them with varying degrees of painful results. This group of pesticides, which came into prominence in American agriculture to replace the banned DDT, was in turn banned, but not before it caused a considerable amount of nerve damage among American farmers and farmworkers. We're still eating the leftovers of World War II -- indeed!
The great question being asked by officials is: What caused the explosion? "Ammonium nitrate" is an unacceptable answer.
One dominant theme in the West TX "investigations" is culpability. Naively we would assume the effort was to assign guilt to the rightful parties. In fact, it looks like the real effort is dodge liability, something the deepest pockets of all -- the insurance companies -- deeply desire. If it could only be -- if not proven, even solidly suggested --that a lone arsonist or -- blessings from On High! -- a conspiracy, and if not Muslim, at least a domestic terrorist conspiracy, it might just be argued that it was "an act of war" of some kind, anyway, and that determination could limit the liability of the insurance companies involved.
It would probably prove cheaper to rebuild the schools, apartments and houses and do what "environmental remediation engineers" can do to clean up the groundwater. But there is the Principle of the Thing to consider: Money in America moves upward, not downward.
However, there is a gaping hole in our thinking about West TX. The one question that should be first but will never be asked officially by a government that represents agribusiness, not the citizens continually maimed and killed by agribusiness, is: Why do we have ammonium nitrate fertilizer and why did we have organophosphate pesticides at all?
Practically speaking, commercial (rather than organic) farmers know perfectly well why these artificial chemical compounds are used and what they do: AN causes growth; parathion, malathion, guthion and ethion all killed bugs. That's how you get more, bigger, cleaner looking produce.
Speaking from a bit longer vision than the crop year, your soil is shot so you have to use fertilizer, and your region, where everyone grows pretty much the same crops you do, is constantly infested with pests that never go away.
In American agribusiness, the farmer operates like a beneficial creature -- beneficial for the bank that carries his constant debt, and the various dealers in pesticides, fertilizers and equipment that the farmer employs to "farm" exhausted land that is no more than a medium to hold ferlilizer, water and plants or trees, and the energy corporations providing their products all along the pipeline from pesticide encased seed to cereal bowl. This land, in some sense, the farmer is said to "own." In the political economy of agribusiness he must destroy it to continue to call it his.
How did this happen? It is a long, dismal story the dark and stormy natural of which accounts for most farmers' near total ignorance of the history of farming in their region, state or nation. They don't want to know, and they have their reasons.
Ah, Competition, proclaimed by all the organs of our Public Imagination -- the pompousm empty universities, the screed of the press and malign buffoonery of television's yakking heads, Business Potentates, the squawks and clucking from the Congressional Barnyard -- to be the Most Noble Virtue of the Red-Blooded American.
Well, yes, all that is a little obsessive when looked at from a certain angle, but even competition is not the whole story. Why did the industrialized world face a soil-fertility crisis in the mid-19th century that eent it to islands off the shores of Peru and Chile that looked like icebergs but were composed nearly entirely of guano? Yes, bird splat saved Western agriculture from itself until the technology for extracting nitrogen from air was developed.
But that still doesn't answer the question why was the addition of nitrogen from an outside source necessary to maintain or restore soil fertility in Western Europe and America from the middle of the 19th century on?
Badlands Journal editorial board
Gerhard Schrader (25 February 1903–1990) was a German chemist specializing in the discovery of new insecticides, hoping to make progress in the fight against hunger in the world. Schrader is best known for his accidental discovery of nerve agents such as sarin and tabun, and for this he is sometimes called the "father of the nerve agents".
Schrader grew up in Bortfeld, near Wendeburg, Germany, studied chemistry at TU Braunschweig, and was later employed at the Bayer AG division of IG Farben.
Schrader discovered several very effective insecticides, including bladan (the first fully synthetic contact insecticide), and parathion (E 605). In 1936, while employed by the large German conglomerate IG Farben, he was experimenting with a class of compounds called organophosphates, which killed insects by interrupting their nervous systems. Instead of a new insecticide, he accidentally discovered tabun, an enormously toxic organophosphate compound still sometimes stockpiled today as a nerve agent. During World War II, under the Nazi regime, teams led by Schrader discovered two more organophosphate nerve agents, and a fourth after the war:
Criminal Investigation Launched into Texas Fertilizer Explosion
Texas law enforcement officials said on May 10 that they are beginning a criminal investigation into the fertilizer plant fire and explosion that occurred on April 17 in West, Texas.
Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Director Steven McCraw announced the Texas Rangers would join McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara in investigating possible criminal activity related to the event.A word from our sponsor:
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“This disaster has severely impacted the community of West, and we want to ensure that no stone goes unturned and that all the facts related to this incident are uncovered,” Director McCraw said.
Texas paramedic Bryce Reed also was arrested on May 10, on charges of possessing bomb-making material, but DPS officials did not say whether the criminal investigation was related to Reed’s arrest. Reed was a member of the West Emergency Medical Services unit at the time of the fire and explosion. Two days after the explosion he was “let go” from West EMS for unknown reasons, according to The Associated Press.
In a prepared statement, Reed’s attorney, Jonathan Sibley, said Reed “had no involvement whatsoever in the explosion” and will plead not guilty to the explosives charge.
The criminal complaint against Reed, filed in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas states that as of April 26, Reed was in possession of a firearm, “namely: a destructive device, which firearm was not registered to him” on a federal registry.
The West Fertilizer Co. facility explosion resulted in the deaths of 14 people, most of whom were volunteer emergency responders, and an estimated $100 million in damage to the surrounding area. More than 200 others were injured from the blast. The AP reported that the facility carried only $1 million in liability coverage from United States Fire Insurance Co.
of Morristown, N.J.
At least six lawsuits have been filed against West Fertilizer and its owners, Adair Grain Inc.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) said that both SMFO and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators have maintained from the outset that an intentional act or a criminal act could not be eliminated, and that at no time was the investigation limited to an industrial accident.
Around 250 leads have been developed and more than 400 people interviewed so far, the SFMO said.
The DPS Division of Emergency Management officials also are working with local, state and federal partners to assess the damages and facilitate recovery assistance to the victims in the community.
Causes Still Unknown
The SFMO has said the fire that triggered the explosion started in the fertilizer and seed building, and that ammonium nitrate was detonated in the explosion.
While the exact cause of the fire was unknown at press time, the SFMO said a number of causes have been eliminated as triggers for the initial fire, including: weather; natural; anhydrous ammonium; the railcar containing ammonium nitrate; and a fire within the ammonium nitrate bin. Additionally, water used during firefighting activities did not contribute to the cause of the explosion, the SFMO said.
Are Chemical Safety Inspectors Being Blocked in West, TX?
Posted: 05/29/2013 3:36 pm
After the devastating explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 and injured about 200, most people assumed—as did the two Texas Senators—that there would be a full investigation of the incident.
To be sure, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was able to send its national response team to begin looking for a possible crime. The problem however, is that this has been getting in the way of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). The CSB was created in 1998 to investigate chemical accidents. The agency isn’t a law enforcement agency, but
rather is one that conducts “root cause investigations,” according to CSB Chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso. But the CSB has been prevented from properly accessing the site and from doing its job.
This is not because the independent federal agency hasn’t been trying. The CSB sent 18 investigators and technical experts to
the site within 24 hours of the April 17 blast. However, the ATF has not only prevented CSB full access to witnesses, it has reportedly been altering or removing valuable evidence. In a May 17 letter to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, Dr. Moure-Eraso wrote of his frustration and concern about the “unprecedented and harmful delay”:
At the same time the CSB deployed its investigative team and associated fire and blast experts, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) mobilized a large “national response team” that assumed essentially exclusive control of the incident site in concert with Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) personnel. These criminal investigators have exercised exclusive control of the site for a full one-month period, from April 17, 2013, until today and have altered or removed almost all relevant physical evidence at the site. The ATF and SFMO consistently expressed the position that CSB was not permitted to conduct separate interviews, prepare expert analysis, or author its own independent report. The ATF and SFMO stated that because in their view this was exclusively a criminal investigation, there could be only one version of what occurred and one report.
During the critical period before the accident site was completely altered, CSB investigators were explicitly excluded from the site by ATF/SFMO and received only limited access days later. The CSB investigative leadership had no meaningful input into how the site was managed or what pieces of potential evidence were collected, altered, removed, destroyed, or discarded.
Throughout this period, the incident site was massively and irreversibly altered under the direction of ATF personnel, who used cranes, bulldozers, and other excavation apparatus in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find a single ignition source for the original fire. In a news statement on May 16, the ATF said that over the past month it has “spent approximately $500,000 in the rental of heavy equipment, which assisted in excavating the scene” – fully half the cost of their overall inquiry. [Hyperlink replaces in-letter footnote]
In return for limited and unsatisfactory site access, the CSB had to agree to conduct no witness interviews, which form an integral and essential part of the CSB investigative process. This state of affairs with witness interviews continued for almost three weeks after the incident – an unprecedented and harmful delay. On the morning of May 7, the CSB finally commenced its interview process with a knowledgeable plant employee who had already been interviewed multiple times by the ATF. As soon as the witness left his car near the CSB’s temporary offices in downtown West, he was suddenly surrounded by four armed ATF and SFMO agents and taken away for further ATF interrogation at an unknown location. This occurred without any explanation or prior notice to the CSB. Only after numerous protests and inquiries did the witness eventually reappear about four hours later.
The CSB objected to the ATF about the stiff-arm approach they were receiving, but didn’t get far. According to the Austin American-Statesman:
On the afternoon of May 13, Don Holmstrom, director of the western regional office of the chemical safety agency, sent his ATF counterpart a simple request: Grant access to the site to Chemical Safety Board personnel beginning May 15.
Two hours later, he got a terse response from Brian Hoback, supervisor of an elite ATF national response team.
“Access denied until further notice,” he said in an email obtained by the American-Statesman. “We are not releasing the site at that time. Secondly, we are releasing the site to the responsible party’s attorney … when we are finished. Date unknown.”
When asked at a joint news conference of the ATF and the Texas State Fire Marshal on May 16 if the information collected would be made available to the Chemical Safety Board, Assistant State Fire Marshall Kelly Kistner stated that the agencies would not be making it available at that time because “this is an ongoing criminal investigation.” This is all happening despite a 2001 Memorandum of Understanding between ATF and CSB that was intended to minimize disputes over jurisdiction between the agencies.
The history of conflict between these federal agencies is more than just a bureaucratic turf war. According to The Dallas Morning News:
The chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso, elaborated further in an interview Wednesday about why unfettered access to an accident scene, even amid a criminal investigation, is important.
Moure-Eraso told me CSB investigators need to collect their own chemical samples, mark exact positions of equipment like control valves and preserve other physical evidence like debris. Those seemingly innocuous things could yield important clues about what went wrong inside a company – an equipment malfunction or worker error, for example – and help formulate safety improvements or regulatory changes, he said.
“We’re trying to find out why this happened, not only how it happened,” Moure-Eraso told me. “That’s what we’re wanting to learn to avoid the next one [disaster].”
Why does this matter? There are essential lessons that need to be learned from this incident. As it turns out, the circumstances at West, Texas, may in fact be replicated across the country. Reuters reports that:
At least 800,000 people across the United States live near hundreds of sites that store large amounts of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate, which investigators are blaming as the source of last month's deadly blast at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, a Reuters analysis shows.
Hundreds of schools, 20 hospitals and 13 churches, as well as hundreds of thousands of households, also sit near the sites.
At least 12 ammonium-nitrate facilities have 10,000 or more people living within a mile.
The mayor of West, Texas, is reported to hope for new regulation to prevent future such tragedies.
Given that such recommendations are the purview of CSB, but are not the purview of the ATF, it is hard to see how such recommendations could be forthcoming under the current circumstances.