Monday, April 20, 2015

West Two Years Later: The Cause Above Everything

Today, impossible heroes and implausible villains are to be found mainly in video games, but back in the 1930s, one of the largest-selling series of adventure books for boys was based around a young inventor character named Tom Swift.  Great literature it was not, but there was plenty of action, the good guys were always good, and the bad guys were really bad, although sometimes it was hard to tell what they were being bad about.  I particularly remember the closing scene of one book in which, after Tom foils a complicated attempt by an evildoer to wreak havoc on an entire city, the bad guy is led away in handcuffs muttering, "The Cause!  The Cause above everything!"  The reader was left in the dark as to what the Cause was, but it didn't matter—it was merely a placeholder, an unnamed motivation so that the bad guy could move the plot along.

In Texas, fiction sometimes becomes reality more than we'd like it to.  For example, who would have the nerve to write a book in which the president of the Texas Ag Industries Association would be named—I kid you not—Donnie Dippel?  But that's his name.  It's right here in the paper, the Austin American-Statesman for Friday, April 17, a date which marked the two-year anniversary of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion that devastated the town of West, Texas, killing 15 and causing an estimated $100 million in damage.  After the explosion, the accident was thoroughly investigated amid outcries for tighter regulation of fertilizer storage facilities, of which there are dozens all over the state. 

As you might expect from a blast that was so strong it registered on seismographs hundreds of miles away and dug a crater ten feet deep, any evidence as to what caused the fire that led to the explosion was pulverized and scattered almost beyond recognition.  The official investigation by the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office listed the cause as "unknown," which is true in a technical sense.  But what is known is that somehow, a fire started in a wooden structure housing around 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can detonate in milliseconds under the wrong conditions.  And many of those conditions—such as storage of the chemical in wooden bins, lack of adequate automatic fire control systems such as sprinklers, and keeping flammable materials such as fuel, batteries, and seed grains near ammonium nitrate stocks—still prevail in many of the other fertilizer facilities in Texas.

But no, we cannot say with iron-clad certainty exactly what started the fire that made the ammonium nitrate explode at West.  And for Mr. Dippel, it's the cause above everything.

The twisted logic he seems to be following goes like this:  If you don't know the cause of an accident, you can't place the blame, and if you can't place the blame, you can't take actions such as legislation to improve the safety of fertilizer facilities.  That's the only way I can see that a person of otherwise sound mind could come up with the following statement, which I quote exactly as it appears in the paper: 

"We don't know what happened at West, and we wish somebody could determine what happened so we make sure to correct what happened so it never happens again."

But unless somebody determines what happened, the official position of the Texas Ag Industries Association is that they do not want a bunch of new rules about how to store ammonium nitrate.

No one determined "the cause" (in Mr. Dippel's sense) of the fire aboard the cargo freighter Grandcamp, which was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate when its cargo detonated, wrecking most of the port of Texas City and killing over 500 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department.  This was back in 1947, sixty-six years and a day before the West explosion.  But the absence of an exact known cause didn't stop the port of Texas City from banning the transportation of ammonium nitrate in any form through its port facilities two years after the disaster. 

One definition of "cause" is that state of affairs which, if removed from a situation, would prevent the effect from occurring.  A lot of dangerous circumstances prevail in cities and towns where ammonium nitrate is stored, and if those circumstances are removed, the effect of another such explosion is less likely to happen.  If the owners of the plants and the first responders in their surrounding communities won't voluntarily take new safety measures (a few have, but many haven't), maybe changes in laws will.

In this year's Texas legislative session, several bills have been introduced to help prevent another West-style fertilizer disaster.  One of the most sensible, filed by Texas Rep. Kyle Kacal of College Station, would give the Texas State Fire Marshal authority to inspect locations where ammonium nitrate is stored.  At the very minimum, information shared from these inspections would help local fire departments plan for firefighting and evacuation, if necessary, in the case of fires at these facilities.  Other bills, such as the one by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, would go farther and increase the mandatory amount of liability insurance carried by such plants.

To my mind, the single worst failing in the West disaster was lack of information.  The first responders apparently didn't know how dangerous the West Fertilizer Company fire was.  And the town had no plans for evacuation in case of a fire at the plant.  A similar fire in College Station led to the evacuation of a large area of town, fortunately without an explosion occurring.  Two simple measures—allowing inspections, and sharing information and training with first responders—could have prevented most of the loss of life and injuries at West, but not the millions in property damage.  To make sure such explosions don't happen in the future, fertilizer firms that store ammonium nitrate will have to clean up their act with improvements that will cost them money. 

One test of a society's ability to function is to watch how it deals with major disasters, and how well it acts to prevent them in the future.  Texas and Texans have dealt with major tragedies successfully in the past—hurricanes, tornadoes, oil-refinery explosions, and many other natural and self-inflicted messes—and I like to think that we come together in the aftermath to do the right, sensible, and just thing.  Perhaps this is a foolish hope, but I hope that suitable legislation is passed to make the West, Texas tragedy the last ammonium-nitrate disaster that Texans ever experience.

Sources:  The Austin American-Statesman carried the article "Despite West blast, industry crackdown unlikely," in its Friday, Apr. 17, 2015 print edition on pp. A1 and A8.  (The online edition is accessible only by subscription.)  I also used information from The Texas Observer's online article "West, Texas Blues" at  The Texas City disaster is described in impressive detail by Bill Minutaglio in his 2003 book (HarperCollins) City on Fire, and the Texas City ban on ammonium nitrate is reported in that book on p. 270.  I also referred to the CNN article for the size of the crater and to the Wikipedia articles on the West Fertilizer Company explosion and the Texas City disaster.

1 comment:

  1. Expecting an update now!