CLIFTON, Texas – When a fertilizer plant exploded in a small Texas town, killing 15 people and decimating homes and schools, it became Chris Connealy’s responsibility to keep anything like it from happening again.
The state fire marshal has spent the last eight months studying the explosion in West of stores of ammonium nitrate, a common but potentially dangerous chemical used in fertilizer. Now, Connealy and his office are embarking on a 68-stop tour of Texas to meet with first responders and businesses about how to store the chemical and deal with a fire like the one on April 17 at West Fertilizer Co.
Distrust of government runs deep in Texas, and the explosion did not spur serious calls from lawmakers for new regulations or a statewide fire code. Any change to how hazardous chemicals are stored in the state will likely have to come voluntarily.
The tour began this month in Clifton, a town of 3,400 that’s about 35 miles from West. More than 100 people packed the auditorium. Some of them had gone to West on the night of the blast to help evacuate and treat victims.
“Tonight I want to focus on reaffirming best practices,” Connealy told the crowd. “I always say it’s hard to get in trouble following best practices.”
“The sole mission is to prevent another West,” he added, acknowledging that he once questioned the need for training and orders from his bosses.
Both Connealy and Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner would not specifically discuss the response in West, but stressed the importance of frequent training and of officials asking for help if disaster ever struck. Connealy also called on fire chiefs to be ready to say a fire was too dangerous to fight — even if that went against firehouse culture.
State and federal investigators have never identified a single cause or ruled out a criminal act in the West blast. But several deficiencies have come to light. Dozens of tons of ammonium nitrate were stored in flammable wooden containers. There was no sprinkler system and no fence to keep out intruders.
McLennan County, where West is located, has no fire code and it wasn’t clear in the immediate aftermath what training West’s volunteer firefighters had had. At the time of the blast, state officials did not have an accurate tally of how many facilities in Texas stored large amounts of ammonium nitrate or how safe those facilities were.
Today, Texas officials say they have a better understanding of potential hazards, narrowing four separate databases to a list of 104 facilities with 5 tons or more of ammonium nitrate — about seven times less than the amount believed to have detonated in West.
Three of the facilities are in Bosque County, where Clifton is located. Connealy said those three were “better than many of the facilities that we’ve found across the state.” Fire marshals’ investigators found nothing wrong during voluntary inspections.
The two facilities in Clifton are operated by brothers John and Robert Payne.
Robert Payne runs a business where he keeps ammonium nitrate inside a concrete silo once used for grain. The ammonium nitrate is secured behind a tarp-covered gate that’s chained with a padlock.
Payne said he wasn’t worried that the chemical was unsafe before or after the West explosion. He said he followed best practices already and had met with local volunteer firefighters to discuss what to do in an emergency.
His main concern: Texas would overreact by rushing to pass new rules that would drive up his costs and push him out of business.
“I don’t see how a regulation would make anything any safer,” he said.
Bosque County may be one of the better-prepared parts of the state. Former President George W. Bush’s ranch is in neighboring McLennan County.
“Our county is far more prepared for disasters than many, many rural counties,” Bosque County emergency manager coordinator Dewey Ratliff said. Local officials also regularly communicate with firefighters and business leaders about potential hazards, from ammonium nitrate to fires to terrorism, Ratliff said.
Terry Boyle, president of the Clifton volunteer fire department, said after Connealy’s meeting that he and other firefighters had thought about what they’d do if an ammonium nitrate disaster ever struck again. But ultimately, he said, there was only so much they could do to prepare.