Texas, where disasters are just one of those things

WEST, Texas: A week after a fertiliser plant explosion killed 14 residents, injured more than 150 others and levelled scores of homes in the Texas town of West, one emotion is notably absent among citizens and officials: outrage.

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

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"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 fertiliser 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. Limited zoning laws allowed schools, a nursing home and houses 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 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 on 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.

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

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 wilfully violate regulations. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the lead regulatory agency, has cut its budget and laid off workers in recent years.

In West, such debates are 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 the town, then development came towards it.

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

Los Angeles Times