Fertilizer Explosion Update: Weak Inspections and Strong Kolaches

There have been a few developments on the news of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The bodies of 12 people have been recovered, and about 200 people were injured in the explosion, according to the most recent reports. Here’s a video of the blast site from above:

The US fertilizer industry is large and growing fast due to cheap natural gas, which is a precursor. Brad Plumer at the Washington Post writes that there are 44 fertilizer production facilities and 6,000 retail facilities. The West plant was one of the smaller retail facilities, which are regulated by individual states. The Guardian‘s Datablog has a map of where these are located.

The explosion shone a harsh light on the US fertilizer industry and the weak, toothless regulation thereof. One problem Plumer notes is that, “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration tends to be understaffed and inspections are relatively infrequent. The Texas fertilizer industry has only seen six inspections in the past five years — and the West Texas Fertilizer Co. facility was not one of them.” This was despite the West facility receiving a $2,300 fine from the EPA in 2006 for poor risk-management planning. The last time the facility had been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was in 1985. Think Progress reports that the plant had been inspected in 2011 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which resulted in a $10,100 fine for missing placards and lack of security plans. The fine was reduced in 2012 after improvements were made at the plant.

Fertilizer explosions are relatively common in history. There have been 17 unintended explosions of ammonium nitrate causing casualties since 1921. The worst of these was the explosion of a cargo ship in the Port of Texas City that killed 581 people and injured 3500.

On a slightly happier note one of West’s landmarks, a Czech bakery, deli, and gas station combo called Czech Stop, survived the explosion and has served as a base for first responders and the community, never stopping production of its famous kolaches. Read about it in Mother Jones.

Rhiannon M. Kirkland

Rhiannon M. Kirkland is an intern at the Washington Monthly.