The city of West, shaken by a violent explosion at a fertilizer company, is rebuilding.
Major projects underway or recently completed include a new playground to honor firefighters killed in the blast, a nursing home to replace one severely damaged during the incident, and a high school and middle school campus to replace demolished classrooms.
Friday marks the second anniversary of the ammonium nitrate explosion, which left 15 dead and more than 150 people injured, and which destroyed or damaged dozens of buildings. The initial cause of the fire that led to the massive explosion remains undetermined.
But two years after the blast, the city is still trying to recoup money it says the fertilizer company owes them and lawmakers in Austin are still grappling with what role state government should play in regulating the 70-odd similar facilities scattered across Texas, many of them in rural communities like West.
The current legislative session is the first full one convened since the explosion, yet it appears lawmakers will stop short of mandating any new major safety rules at the facilities.
Lawmakers could rally around a bill, by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, that enjoys some fertilizer industry support; it would allow fire marshals to enter and examine ammonium nitrate storage facilities.
That bill stops short of a proposal by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, that would authorize the state commissioner of insurance, in consultation with the state fire marshal, to adopt fire protection standards for ammonium nitrate storage.
One novel measure by a Travis County lawmaker would force such facilities to get hefty liability insurance.
The West Fertilizer Co. explosion caused at least $100 million in damage to the surrounding community, but the company carried only a $1 million insurance liability plan.
By requiring companies to take out heavier insurance, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, is hoping the facilities will take safety measures to lower their premiums.
Liability coverage is “required for things much less dangerous,” Rodriguez said. “This is a common-sense type of bill that could motivate improved safety measures in these facilities.”
The insurance mandate bill is one of several proposals meant to improve safety equipment at fertilizer storage facilities.
The proposals have been met with varying levels of resistance by the fertilizer industry, which has warned the government about overregulating in the wake of the tragedy.
“As a result of West, the industry has made a lot of changes already,” Jim Farley, owner of Farley Farm Supply in De Leon, told the Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee earlier this month. “In two years, we’ve made more changes in how we’ve stored ammonium nitrate fertilizer than in the previous 36.”
Farley told the committee that his business, which sells ammonium nitrate fertilizer, has gutted an area around its storage area to leave a buffer and assigned an employee to safety and training practices.
“We should have less government regulation instead of what I perceive as more government regulation,” he continued.
But in the wake of the West Fertilizer Co. explosions, the American-Statesman learned that inspectors with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration hadn’t visited the facility for more than a quarter century.
In the decade before the explosion, the fertilizer company had been fined or disciplined by at least three different state and federal regulatory agencies for safety or licensing violations — a record that officials called “average.”
Public health groups say the government should play a stronger role in policing the industry.
“It’s reasonable to expect the Legislature to implement significant, long-lasting protocols to make the communities around these facilities safer,” said N. Alex Winslow, director of consumer watchdog Texas Watch. “The risks to the public far outweigh the sacrifices business owners must make.”
(Estimates for annual premiums for a $1 million liability policy for a fertilizer facility vary widely, from $1,000 a year to $25,000 a year.)
But the prospects for more stringent regulations are shaky.
“Typically the Legislature is well-intentioned when responding to these disasters,” Winslow said, “but too often these special interests take hold, and create an obstacle for meaningful improvements in public safety.”
The long-term recovery at West continues.
Last year church groups and others donated 120,000 hours of labor.
The free labor helped stretch the $3.6 million in donations, said Suzanne Hack, who oversees the recovery efforts.
That pot of money was used to address 600 property-damage cases — cases that the $1 million liability coverage taken out by the fertilizer company couldn’t come close to covering.
In a kind of recovery triage, Hack said that the city concentrated on repairing owner-occupied homes. Some rental properties, many of which were lightly insured, remain damaged or destroyed.
With West Fertilizer’s liability coverage not nearly enough to cover damages, uninsured residents “might get 10 cents on the dollar if they’re lucky,” said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, which represents insurance companies. “They’re getting some meals and some clothing, but they’re not getting put back whole.”
“Everybody in this blast was affected — you have the rest home, homeowners, the school system. That’s going to come back and hit them in higher taxes to get that back and running, so the lack of liability insurance carried by the company has an effect. This is not a hail storm or tornado — this is not God — this is an actual explosion that could have been prevented,” Hanna said.
Last fall, the school district broke ground on a new combined school campus as it began to replace some of its damaged or destroyed buildings, including a middle school, intermediate school and a state-of-the-art high school, built in the late 199os.
The district estimates the costs of the new projects at $70.5 million, less than half of which will come from its own insurer; the difference is being paid for by the federal government and the state.
“It would have been easier for us if (West Fertilizer Co.) would have had a greater than $1 million umbrella, so the money would have been available through their insurance company,” said Charles Mikeska, assistant superintendent of West Independent School District.
“We’re no means coming out equal to what we had before,” Superintendent David Truitt said.
The city of West has now sued the fertilizer company, the manufacturer of the fertilizer and shippers of the fertilizer for damages.
West has “suffered catastrophic loss and damages,” says a February court filing. “This includes damage to many of the roads as well as the sewer and water system. Damages to the infrastructure (roads, buildings, homes, property, sewer and water) have also led to a diminution in property values. This has also resulted in loss of tax revenue.”
Lawyers for the companies either didn’t return requests for comment or declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The fertilizer industry has said that, absent a known cause of the fire that led to the explosion, it isn’t supporting a host of new rules, such as the Rodriguez insurance mandate.
“We don’t know what happened at West, and we wish somebody could determine what happened so we make sure to correct what happened so it never happens again,” said Donnie Dippel, president of the Texas Ag Industries Association, which represents fertilizer companies.