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Metro Storage LLC recently announced the acquisition of four facilities located in the Minneapolis suburbs of Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Mound, and Orono. When prospective customers do an Internet search, the smaller facilities are not at the top of the list. The owners of smaller facilities may feel that they do not have the revenue to list their facility in an online self storage database. Smaller facilities also may not have funds to pay for an interactive website with online payment capabilities. In the ritual of modern disaster politics, catastrophes are closely followed by elected officials on the scene to praise local grit and promise swift relief.
In the weeks after the West disaster, investigators identified numerous ways it might have been prevented — or at least mitigated. Yet eight months after 15 people died and hundreds were injured, no significant measures have been adopted by state government to keep something like it from occurring again. The Legislature, though it was in session when the plant blew up, did little beyond holding hearings.
Texas has taken no measurable steps toward adopting a statewide fire code, which could have prevented the blast. The state has not tightened rules for storing or securing ammonium nitrate, the chemical that exploded at West. Texas still does not require facilities that stockpile such materials to carry liability insurance.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency whose mission includes the broader role of protecting the public’s health, has abandoned any role in West-related matters. Such caution is not out of character for a state long wary of rules that might inhibit commerce. The governor has expressed no position on what the Legislature should do in response to West, Havens said. Elena Craft, an Austin-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the reluctance to regulate has left others at risk. Three minutes later, a dispatcher alerted West’s 33 volunteer firefighters via beeper. The West Fire department had never trained to fight a fire at the plant, except for a walk-through years before. As the fire at the plant grew, Chief George Nors and Assistant Chief Emanuel Mitchell were worried about the smoke blowing over a nearby neighborhood, Nors recalled.
Anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer kept under pressure in liquid form, becomes a potentially lethal gas if it leaks. Over the years, the fire department had been called on several occasions when pop-off safety valves at the plant leaked. Fertilizer businesses, such as West Fertilizer Co., must file so-called Tier II reports with the state, as well as with local emergency planning committees and fire departments.
The Texas Department of State Health Services, along with the local county emergency director and the fire department, all received 2012 Tier II reports on West Fertilizer Co.
Under certain conditions, such as compression and intense heat, ammonium nitrate fertilizer can explode.
An apartment complex near the West fertilizer plant sustained major damage in the explosion. Now, worried about smoke and toxic fumes, nursing home attendants began moving patients to the side of the home farthest from the burning plant. At the plant, conditions inside the wooden fertilizer and seed building deteriorated rapidly. Investigators later determined that 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up with a concussive force of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT — at least three times more powerful than the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The explosion flung tons of earth into the air, creating a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.
Twelve first responders, including firefighters and emergency services technicians, died instantly from blunt-force trauma and burns. Battling smoke and choking on dust, staff and volunteers moved patients to a nearby football field in their wheelchairs — sometimes two to a chair, often without oxygen tanks or medications.
Block after block of homes, more than 350 residences in all, sustained structural damage, including collapsed roofs and walls. The Insurance Council of Texas estimated total damage in the town could exceed $100 million. State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, speaking at a news conference in West, vowed to continue the investigation as long as necessary.
Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy told reporters gathered at West High School in May that he would continue the investigation as long as necessary. Despite that uncertainty, most now agree that automatic fire suppression equipment could have extinguished the small blaze before it could spread to the ammonium nitrate. State law allows counties to adopt a fire code only if they have a population greater than 250,000, or are adjacent to such a county. Because it is adjacent to Bell County, which meets the population standard, McLennan County could have had a fire code but never adopted one. The explosion in West has focused attention on other parts of Texas where people reside near ammonium nitrate storage facilities. Some 20,000 people live within a half mile of the more than 70 sites in Texas that reported having large stockpiles of ammonium nitrate, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of state data.
Georgetown Fire Chief John Sullivan, whose department covers a large ammonium nitrate storage facility, was one of many fire officials who began reviewing emergency response plans after West. No government agency has overall responsibility to ensure the safekeeping of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. At state hearings, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality chairman Bryan Shaw said ensuring that ammonium nitrate was safely stored was the responsibility of the Office of the Texas State Chemist. But state chemist Tim Herrman said his office checks only on security from theft, not for risks of explosions.
Information about where and how ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals are stored has not been easily accessible to the public. Only after The News made a formal request under the state Public Information Act did the Texas Department of State Health Services release the chemical disclosure information that that companies must submit.
Recently, the state chemist’s advisory committee approved a plan to require ammonium nitrate facilities to post a placard informing emergency responders about fire risks.
Also, fertilizer facilities will no longer be able to renew their registration unless they file a Tier II chemical inventory report as required by the federal government. Craft, the environmental scientist, said such measures don’t go far enough to protect the public. The State Fire Marshal’s Office has offered help to communities with ammonium nitrate facilities. However, the information provided on the site does not provide the name or address of the facility — only the ZIP code in which it is located. Months after the West blast, the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held hearings on regulatory questions. No bills related to these matters were introduced in the 2013 session, or the three special sessions that followed. Pickett said his committee will meet early next year to discuss the possibility of legislation that would direct one state agency to regulate and inspect facilities such as West Fertilizer. That would require consolidation of duties and clear mandates, and the selection of the agency to assume such responsibilities remains to be made.
None of these would constitute sweeping alterations in the way the state does business, Pickett said.
Some lawmakers have said that a mishmash of policies and a breakdown in communication among federal, state and local planners helped keep firefighters in the dark about the dangers of the fertilizer stored in West.
In response, President Obama signed an executive order in August directing federal agencies involved in overseeing dangerous chemicals to better share information and modernize standards.
The agencies also were ordered to improve how they work with other federal, state and local officials. A few weeks after the presidential directive, the federal government issued new guidelines for storing and handling ammonium nitrate. Many of the guidelines, if they had already been in place, could have spared the town of West — or, at a minimum, the lives of its firefighters. The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, investigates major chemical accidents and develops safety recommendations to prevent their recurrence.
The board is in the middle of its investigation into the West explosion and hopes to issue a report by April with detailed recommendations for local, state and national stakeholders related to the ammonium nitrate business. Scores of victims of the blast have filed suit against West Fertilizer, as has the city of West. Plaintiffs have alleged that CF Industries should have better instructed West Fertilizer Co. The legal matter is still in its early stages, as attorneys wrangle over scheduling and other issues.
The Department of State Health Services still cannot say exactly how many people were injured in the explosion.
In the weeks after the explosion, 14 former Rest Haven patients died, almost double what’s normal for a two-month period at the nursing home, administrator Rose Ann Morris said. The blast and the chaotic aftermath were intensely stressful events for the nursing home residents, Smith said.
As Muska spoke from his office in downtown West, a freight train rumbled past on the tracks that bisect the city’s business district. Sometimes simple rules make the most sense, the mayor said, such as a fire code that requires a sprinkler system. Staff writers Sue Ambrose, James Drew, Reese Dunklin, Brandon Formby, Matt Jacob, Daniel Lathrop, Randy Lee Loftis, Sarah Mervosh and Steve Thompson contributed to this report. These facilities add 208,000 rentable square feet, 1,500 storage units, and 450 recreational vehicle parking spaces. Large self storage companies around the United States are buying small mom-and-pop facilities. As customers become used to these features, they do not consider facilities that don’t have them.
This means that sometimes their accounting is still done with paper and pencil and that their other managerial responsibilities are not electronic-based.
Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption in West sang and prayed near the end of a candlelight healing walk in July through the neighborhood hit hardest by the fatal fertilizer plant explosion in April.
The state does not regulate volunteer fire departments and does not mandate any minimum training standards for volunteer firefighters in Texas. They were even more concerned about the numerous tanks of anhydrous ammonia stored at the plant. West Fertilizer had no secure fencing, and police and sheriff deputies had also responded numerous times to reports of burglaries.
A fertilizer ingredient whose pellets look like puffy grains of rice, it is commonly used on farms around the region. These reports specify the maximum amount of hazardous material on hand the previous calendar year.
The report indicated the company had at least 270 tons of ammonium nitrate in a storage building in 2012. They said they did not know the explosive potential of ammonium nitrate at high temperatures. Two hundred yards west of the site, staff and patients at the West Rest Haven nursing home looked on with dread at the spreading fire and smoke. The wooden bins holding tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire, turning into cauldrons that cooked the dangerous chemical. There, ceilings and roofs collapsed, walls crumbled and windows shattered, throwing glass shards everywhere. Many of the more than 130 nursing home residents who survived were injured to varying degrees. The explosion damaged the town’s high school, intermediate school and middle school buildings, located within a mile of the fertilizer plant.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with state investigators, logged 20,000 hours, interviewed 400 people, followed 200-plus leads, sifted through 300,000 pounds of corn by hand. Instead, various agencies own small slices of responsibility — creating confusion and gaps in monitoring.
This includes meeting with plant personnel, first responders and local officials to go over best practices for storage of ammonium nitrate and responding to fire.
Previous attempts to establish a fire code met with organized resistance from powerful home builders. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption healing walk in July went past the ruins of West Rest Haven nursing home. They also sued CF Industries, one of the nation’s two manufacturers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. That included attempted theft of anhydrous ammonia, which can be used to make methamphetamine. Many of the residents were trapped in their beds, covered by broken sheetrock, glass and other debris.
It also offers specific firefighting techniques and steps to make sure firefighters and communities are prepared.
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