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Explosion in West, Texas, causes few hard feelings

Despite having had some of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history, Texas has a long-standing tradition of shunning regulation.

April 24, 2013|By Ralph Vartabedian and Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeanette Shell of Lacy Lakeview, Texas, unloads goods Monday for victims of last week's fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Finger-pointing over the accident has been minimal, a reflection of the state’s long-standing tradition of limited regulation.
Jeanette Shell of Lacy Lakeview, Texas, unloads goods Monday for victims… (Charlie Riedel, Associated…)

WEST, Texas — A week after a fertilizer plant explosion killed 14 residents, injured more than 150 others and leveled scores of homes, one emotion is notably absent here among citizens and officials alike: outrage.

"Water under the bridge," said Steve Vanek, West's mayor pro-tem, referring to decisions that allowed homes and schools to be built near the plant.

"It was an accident, and accidents do happen," said Jean Smith, 66, whose home lost most of its roof and sustained structural damage.

The attitudes of local residents partly reflect the character of a small Texas town. "I mind my own business, and that's what a lot of people do around here," said Jeanette Karlik, who writes a column for a local newspaper.

But the views are also part of a long political tradition in Texas of shunning heavy government regulation despite some of the worst industrial accidents in the nation's history. Among other accidents, a 2005 explosion at a BP refinery killed 15, a 1990 chemical plant incident killed 17 and a 1947 fertilizer explosion killed well over 500 people.

The state has no internal occupational safety program, relying on the overburdened federal system for inspections. The occupational fatality rate is above the national average, about double the rate in California. It has a voluntary workers compensation system that leaves many employees without insurance after injuries, according to workplace safety experts. Texas' limited zoning laws allowed schools, nursing facilities and homes to be built near the plant.

In the aftermath of the West tragedy, more than 70 state and federal agents are scouring the plant site. They suspect that the cause was not random, but most likely a failure to control known risks inside the plant.

But top state officials aren't so sure. Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said at a news conference Tuesday in West that the incident could be classified as a natural fire — "an act of God" — or as accidental, incendiary or left as undetermined.

The plant caught fire about half an hour before the detonation, which probably resulted from a large quantity of explosive ammonium nitrate that the company stored at the plant.

Over many years, ammonium nitrate dust can embed itself into wood structures and significantly lower the combustion temperature, one federal agent noted. The fire did not directly cause the explosion, but most likely made the ammonium nitrate more vulnerable to a detonation, which could have been set off by the collapse of the structure.

The blast left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and spread a path of destruction that covered a significant part of the city. The city's high school, built in 2000, and two other schools have sustained so much damage that they could be total losses.

Despite that devastation, sentiments remain subdued among West residents.

"It is not anything that anybody thought could happen," said Missy Sulak, vice president of the School Board. She said Donald Adair, owner of the West Fertilizer plant that blew up, was a resident and never intended to jeopardize the community. Adair has not spoken publicly since the explosion.

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO national safety and health director, said that Adair's operation lacked workers compensation for its seven employees and had not been subject to a safety inspection in years.

Environmental inspectors in Texas have long complained that they lack the resources and authority to aggressively enforce health and safety laws, adding that the state's fines are set so low that companies willfully violate regulations. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the lead regulatory agency, has cut its budget and laid off workers in recent years.

"This tragedy is just one more example of the commission being asleep at the wheel," said Neil Carman, who spent 12 years as a state environmental inspector and now works for the Sierra Club.

A current agency inspector who declined to be identified echoed Carman's views, saying political leaders in Texas had made it increasingly difficult to levy fines and had weakened inspectors' authority. The agency did not directly respond, but cited data showing improvement to the Texas environment over the last decade.

According to data collected by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Texas' fatality rate at workplaces was about 14% above the national average in the most recent year, about double California's rate, and above average in each of the last six years. California and Texas have many high-risk industries, including oil, refining, logging, agriculture, marine shipping and manufacturing.

Government inspections for occupational health and environmental safety are targeted at businesses with the highest routine risks, but not necessarily those with low probabilities of high-impact accidents, experts say.

Nonetheless, when states like Texas advertise the benefits of weaker regulations, it sends an important message to industry, said Michael Wilson, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

"Businesses respond to the regulatory environment," he said. "If they are not held accountable for worker safety, then as rational economic actors they are going to drop that in their priorities."

In West, such academic reasoning is far from residents' thoughts. The plant had been there for decades with maybe an occasional smell of ammonia wafting from it. It was originally outside of town, then development came toward it.

"It was their call to move to that area," Vanek said of the plant's neighbors.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

rick.rojas@latimes.com

Rojas reported from West and Vartabedian from Los Angeles.

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