Threat level: Boston, Texas, your back yard

Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 7.22.46 PMMap from U.S. EPA website

Which one scares you more — a bomber or a fertilizer plant?

In Boston, two bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring about 170. The two bombing suspects later killed a police officer and wounded another. One of the suspects is dead and the other in custody.

In Texas, a fertilizer factory somehow caught on fire and then exploded, killing at least 14 people and injuring about 200. The explosion also destroyed more than 50 homes, a nursing home, an apartment complex and a school.

The fire that began in the fertilizer plant ignited an explosion that caused an earthquake-like event with a 2.1 Richter scale rating. The fertilizer plant contained anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate. According to CBS News, “Timothy McVeigh used two thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate to blow up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. State records show west had a permit to store nearly 50-thousand pounds.” Anhydrous ammonia “is subject to DHS reporting and can explode under extreme heat,” notes the New York Daily News.

The West Fertilizer plant was a scant few blocks from a nursing home and schools. Do you know if there’s a chemical plant with anhydrous ammonia or ammonium nitrate in your back yard? There’s probably no way to tell.

According to Reuters, firms are supposed to self-report to the Department of Homeland Security and devise safety plans. West Fertilizer didn’t do this.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other state and federal agencies have varying reporting requirements and safety rules. Insufficient staffing and regulations mean that dangerous chemical handling and storage can go unregulated. OSHA, for example, had not inspected the plant since 1985.

West Fertilizer filed some reports and didn’t file others. Consequences? Not much. It paid relatively small fines for a variety of violations over the years.

Bloomberg has the best reporting I’ve seen on the long-standing lack of oversight and regulation of plants producing or storing hazardous chemicals:

For worker- and chemical-safety advocates who have been pushing the U.S. government to crack down on facilities that make or store large quantities of hazardous chemicals, the blast in West, Texas, was a grim reminder of the risks these plants pose. And they say regulators haven’t done enough to tackle the problem. …

There are no federal rules mandating that such plants be located away from residential areas, and the current company safety plans aren’t always shared widely with residents nearby, said Paul Orum, an independent consultant who has authored reports on chemical safety for the Center for American Progress.

And it’s not as if this were the first time that explosions of ammonium nitrate have killed lots of people. ABC reports:

More than a dozen other explosions involving the chemical have occurred over the past century. The deadliest was exactly 66 years ago this week, on April 16, 1947, when a series of explosions that began with a blast on a French freighter filled with more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer rocked the huge waterfront petrochemical complex at Texas City, just southeast of Houston. At least 576 people were killed and 5,000 injured.

Others in the United States included 14 killed in Roseburg, Ore., in 1959; six firemen in Kansas City, Mo., in 1988; four people in Port Neal, Iowa, in 1994. In Belgium in 1942, 189 people were killed. In 2001, an explosion at a hangar containing 300 tons of ammonium nitrate at a chemical and fertilizer plant killed 31 people and injured more than 2,000 in Toulouse, France. Another in France killed 29 in 1947, 162 in North Korea in 2004, 37 in Mexico in 2007, and 18 in Romania in 2004.

Which one scares you more — a bomber or a fertilizer plant?

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