West Fertilizer Neighbors May Not Have Known of Explosive Chemicals, but Meth Cooks Did

Investigators still haven't determined the official cause of the fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured at least 200 others in West last month, but all signs point to the large quantities of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that were stored there.

What's also become clear is that neighbors by and large weren't aware of the danger the fertilizer plant posed. At a hearing in the Texas legislature this week, a parade of state agencies testified that it wasn't their responsibility to inform residents that 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, enough to level a good chunk of the town, was stored nearby. Similarly, West Mayor Tommy Muska has said that, because the plant was outside the city limits, local officials had no control.

Despite the gaping regulatory holes, however, there was at least one class of people who were keenly aware of the dangerous chemicals at West Fertilizer: meth cooks. Reuters reports:

Police responded to at least 11 reports of burglaries and five separate ammonia leaks at West Fertilizer Co over the past 12 years, according to 911 dispatch logs and criminal offense reports Reuters obtained from the McLennan County Sheriff's office in Waco, Texas through an Open Records Request.

Some of the leaks, including one reported in October 2012, were linked to theft or interference with tank valves.

According to one 2002 crime report, a plant manager told police that intruders were stealing four to five gallons of anhydrous ammonia every three days. The liquid gas can be used to cook methamphetamine, the addictive and illicit stimulant.

In rural areas across the United States, the thriving meth trade has turned storage facilities like West Fertilizer Co and even unattended tanks in farm fields into frequent targets of theft, according to several government and fertilizer industry reports issued over the past 13 years.

Every indication right now is that negligence and a Swiss cheese regulatory framework, not meth heads, are responsible for the blast. The anhydrous ammonia they were stealing has been ruled out as a cause of the blast. And every indication is that some state agency needs to be charged with overseeing and raising public awareness of sites like West Fertilizer so that homes and schools aren't built nearby. It's probably best not to leave it up to the meth cooks.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson