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Rare inspections, small fines and inefficient follow-up make for a perfect storm.
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Lessons from the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion

May 7, 2013, 12:00 am

Last month, a fertilizer plant exploded in the tiny town of West, Texas, killing 15 people and injuring almost 200. The explosion destroyed about 70 homes near the plant and blasted a 100-foot wide crater in the earth.

As the news came out of Texas, who couldn’t help but wonder why houses—never mind a school and nursing home—were built so close to a fertilizer factory?

But once everyone was sated with plume and agony porn (even NPR ran audio of a girl screaming after the explosion rocked the car she and her dad were sitting in), #West dropped off Twitter feeds and pretty much disappeared from the news.

That’s too bad, because what happened before the explosion—and what’s going to happen next—deserves close attention.

The last time the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the West plant was in 1985, according to Bloomberg. Seven years ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency found its emergency plan lacking and fined the owners just $2,300. Last year, the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined them $5,250 for improperly transporting anhydrous ammonia—the gas that caused the April 17 explosion.

Why does this matter? It shows how infrequent inspections, relatively small fines and ineffective follow-up can lead to catastrophe—even at a family-owned company that employs fewer than 10 people.

Last week, the Texas Legislature held a hearing on oversight of the plant. State officials testified that local officials are the ones responsible for making sure hazardous materials are safely stored. But realistically, what local agency—especially in a town of 2,800 people—has the resources or expertise to oversee, say, 270 tons of the same substance Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing? As noted during the hearing, local officials in West even lacked an emergency plan. 

Here in New Mexico, the state Environment Department has 13 bureaus, eight of which assess and collect fines for violations of state and environmental regulations. In 2012, five of those eight bureaus—Air Quality, Occupational Health and Safety, Solid Waste, Hazardous Waste and Drinking Water—fined companies for various violations, according to a recent report. The other three levied no fines. All but one bureau assessed fewer fines and collected less money than in 2011.

Those trends reflect political priorities, staffing cuts and changes in federal and state regulations.

The explosion in West also reminded me that here, as in Texas, many people live in close proximity to industrial facilities.

Take Arturo Uribe, who lives just 30 yards from a fertilizer warehouse owned by the Tennessee-based Helena Chemical Company. Uribe’s family has lived in the small, southern New Mexico town of Mesquite since the turn of the 20th century. The house he shares with his wife and children was once his grandmother’s.

In 2004, after noticing respiratory problems among some local children, Uribe complained to NMED. The department inspected Helena’s facility, where chemical fertilizers are received in bulk, then mixed and sold to local farmers. Over the next few years, the state took action: It issued a notice of violation for operating without an air quality permit, and ordered Helena to put in wells to monitor groundwater pollution.

The state also issued some big fines, including a $233,777 civil penalty for Helena’s failure to comply with air quality laws and $30,000 for failing to reporting a 500-gallon liquid fertilizer spill. In 2007, NMED cited Helena for 15 air-quality violations. In the end, Helena settled with the state, agreeing to pay $208,331 for various violations.

The following year, Uribe and 22 community members sued the company, claiming that emissions from its Mesquite facility were causing chronic respiratory infections, asthma, severe chronic bronchitis and nosebleeds among local children.

Shortly thereafter, Helena sued Uribe back, accusing him of harassing employees at the Mesquite branch and defaming the company. The lawsuit cited six slides within various presentations that Uribe gave at community meetings, as well as an instance when he told a television reporter: “We’re gonna allow companies and industry to contaminate us and knowingly do it and do nothing about it?  I’m insulted; I’m hurt more than anything.”

Helena—a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Marubeni America Corp., which listed total assets of close to $4.5 billion in 2011—sought $300,000 in punitive damages and $300,000 in actual damages from Uribe—a community organizer.

In April 2010, a jury found Uribe guilty of defamation and harassment. The judge ordered him to pay Helena $2 in actual damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. (The latter amount was later dropped to $9,000.)

Today, Uribe still lives across the street from the warehouse. And while the suit against Helena is still moving through the courts, many of the company’s critics in Mesquite are now silent. For the most part, Uribe now stands alone. 

To learn about industrial facilities near you, visit the EPA’s searchable website.


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