The Reality Behind the West Explosion: It Wasn't Truly an Accident

The plaintive tone is so heart-wrenching, the request itself so naïve, that one is tempted not to respond at all. But in the case of the West fertilizer explosion, silence is at least complicity. It may even be the heart of the crime.

In an open-letter opinion column on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News today, a young chemist who lives in Zionsville, Indiana, urges Texas to adopt a comprehensive statewide system of reporting and other storage and handling controls for ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals. Ammonium nitrate is blamed in the April 17 fire and blast in West that killed 15 people, including 10 first responders, and injured an estimated 200 to 300 others.

Why is Tim White, a chemist in Indiana, writing on the op-ed page of a Dallas newspaper about a Texas disaster? His brother-in-law Kevin Sanders was one of the first volunteer firemen killed when they showed up to fight what they thought was only a fire. The blast in West burdened White's extended family with grief they will carry to their graves.

White makes what I think is a non-debatable point -- that if firemen had known the plant was about to blow, they would not have rushed straight to it, spending their time instead evacuating residents from the surrounding area. At one level, White's plea for a sane system of reporting and regulation makes obvious sense. At another, he misses a dark underlying reality.

The explosion in West was not an accident. It happened exactly the way Texas intended for it to happen. The firemen did not know quantities of a dangerous explosive chemical were stored in the plant for two reasons: 1) Texas is one of only four states in the union that lack a statewide fire code, and 2) Texas has made it against the law for smaller counties to adopt their own codes.

Since the explosion, local officials in West have conspired with state officials to block even a rudimentary hospital census of injuries. Last Saturday, Morning News reporter Sue Ambrose had an appalling piece in the paper quoting a McLennan County official who told her no such study was under way locally because local officials did not want to amass any evidence that might pinpoint blame for the blast. Ambrose reported that State Health Commissioner David Lakey wouldn't even respond to her questions about why no state study was under way.

Weeks after the blast, WFAA television investigative reporter Brett Shipp reported that McLennan County had been collecting an $80,000 a year federal grant to pay for establishment of a local emergency planning committee to deal with risks like the fertilizer plant blast but had never established the committee.

In his op-ed piece today, White says: "The goal of a safer and better country should be incentive enough to try to make the accident in West the last ammonium nitrate disaster."

But here is the terrible truth, Mr. White, an ugly secret we harbor here in Texas. None of it was an accident. The utter lack of social or communal responsibility that led to the blast was no accident. The shocking lack of a comprehensive response after the blast was no accident.

Five days after the blast, before all the bodies were even in the ground, both Governor Rick Perry and West Mayor Tommy Muska had completed their analysis of the event and told reporters confidently that no new regulations were needed.

"Through their elected officials," Perry told The New York Times, Texans "clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight." Muska seconded, saying calls for better regulation were mere, "Monday morning quarterbacking."

What is deliberate, then, what is not an accident, is that people are allowed to store large quantities of explosive materials near schools and nursing homes in Texas with no comprehensive reporting requirements. There are no consistent statewide safety regulations governing the storage of explosive materials. And if a bomb does go off and kill innocent people including volunteer first responders, no comprehensive study of death and injury from the blast will be carried out. The openly stated purpose of this conspiracy is to protect government officials from blame.

The officials openly justify this system by telling us that Texans don't believe in regulation. But the system itself is the most rigid kind of regulation there is -- regulation by default, regulation to protect the guilty from the claims of the innocent. And that, very sadly, Mr. White, is not an accident.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze