West, Texas

On Wednesday, I published a piece at The Guardian about why the media and the US public at large hasn’t paid much attention to the tragedy that happened in West, Texas four weeks ago.

I was waiting to link to the piece here at my main blog until I had the time to put together a giant list of the 70 or 80 links I read in preparation of writing The Guardian piece but I just haven’t had time. Maybe next week!

Here’s an excerpt from my Guardian piece: Why has America lost interest in the West, Texas fertiliser explosion?

Another reason the national media may not be paying much attention to West is that a lot of it is a Texas story. Conservative politicians have responded as many expected – that there is no reason to increase regulation or oversight – thus feeding an idea that this tragedy could only happen there (or in states with similar permissive laws).

There are no state laws in Texas that regulate how close buildings, including residences and schools, can be constructed around a potentially dangerous site like the one in West. Local governments make those decisions.

The director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Steve McCraw, testified before the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety on 1 May and told them that it is not his agency’s job to alert residents of those possible dangers. That is up to local officials. When pushed on existing oversight, McCraw told the committee, “too many threats and too little time”. Within the state of Texas, 112 facilites house ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based chemicals, 44 have significant amounts of the former (at least 10,000 pounds), and 2 sites have as much ammonium nitrate on site as the plant in West did (over 500,000 pounds). On top of it all, a significant amount of plants at risk for explosion have never been inspected by state or federal agencies for emergency preparedness.

I also wrote a piece on West this week for the Austinist. On Thursday, investigators who have been working the scene since the explosion occurred gave a press conference to update the public on what they know. And while they know a lot, the one thing they do not know is what actually sparked the explosion:

Officials determined that two explosions, milliseconds apart, occurred on April 17 around 7:50 p.m. in a room they called “the seed room.” They do know that the fire before the explosion caused the temperature of a small amount of ammonium nitrate to rise, increasing the pressure around the chemicals, and changing the state of the ammonium nitrate. When that small amount exploded, it caused a much larger amount to then explode. In total, they believe 28 to 34 tons (56,000 to 68,000 pounds) of ammonium nitrate exploded. There was another 20 tons in building that did not react and another 100 in a nearby railcar that was sparred.

In total, the site had 150 tons (300,000 pounds) of ammonium nitrate on site, not 270 tons as much of the media was reporting. At the least, 18 percent of the ammonium nitrate on site exploded. It is good that it was not a bigger disaster but it is also worrying that a much smaller than expected amount was what caused the 10-foot deep crater that stretches 93-feet wide.

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