Searchers in protective suits walk through the blast zone of the fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas, on Thursday, April 18, 2013.
As the news of the deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, has unfolded, journalists and observers wasted no time in wondering if anyone could have seen this catastrophe coming.
The Dallas Morning Newsreported that the West facility had claimed in an emergency planning report that an explosion of the kind that happened Wednesday would be virtually impossible. However, further analysis of this report shows that it contained other red flags about potential hazards and shoddy equipment. The plant's June 2011 risk management plan (RMP), filed with the Environmental Protection Agency, identified several potential hazards, including equipment failure; toxic release; overpressure, corrosion, or overfillingof equipment; an earthquake; or a tornado.
The report asserted that the worst-case scenario for the plant "would be the release of the total contents of a storage tank released as a gas over 10 minutes." It reported no flammable material on site, despite listing 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia at the plant.
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In a list of its regulated substances and thresholds, the EPA classifies anhydrous ammonia as toxic, but not flammable. OSHA considers anhydrous ammonia a flammable gas, as do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Fire Protection Association gives anhydrous ammonia a flammability rating of 1 (0 being the lowest, 4 the highest), likely because it requires a high concentration and strong ignition source to catch fire.
It's unclear if the EPA conducted any follow up in response to the potential hazards listed in plant's 2011 risk report. The safety inspector listed on the report was an employee of Security Truck Services, a transporter of anhydrous ammonia located in Baytown, Texas. The EPA and Security Truck Services have not yet responded to requests for comment on the inspection process.
In response to the West explosion, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reports that it has pursued seven investigations of the fertilizer plant since 2002, both routine and in response to complaints. The last recorded investigation occurred in 2007, 10 months after the agency dealt with an odor complaint.
The Texas Tribune notes that this probably means the facility hadn't been inspected in the past five years. This would be consistent with a steep decline in the TCEQ's investigations in the past few years. The agency's last annual enforcement report showed that the number of complaints investigated has plummeted by 20 percent since 2007, though it is unclear it has been receiving fewer complaints. Its total number of investigations has fallen by more than 7 percent since 2007. Since 2008, the agency's operating budget has been slashed by nearly 40 percent. The TCEQ has not responded to a request for comment on its investigations and whether it was familiar with the West plant's 2011 risk report.
Turning to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for information on the plant's safety record turns up little. The plant's last OSHA inspection was in 1985—not surprising considering that it would take the short-staffed agency 98 years for the agency to inspect each of the state's workplaces. (It would take 130 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace in the United States.)
Shortly before 8 p.m. CDT on Wednesday, a massive explosion rocked the central Texas town of West following a fire at a fertilizer plant. Early reports are conflicting, but it appears that over a hundred of people have been injured, and dozens of homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed, including a high school and a nursing home.
Authorities are concerned that winds could carry the toxic fumes into residential areas. At a press conference on Wednesday night, Mayor Tommy Muska (who is also a volunteer firefighter) said, "A lot of people won't be here tomorrow…it's a cut across our hearts." Complicating matters is the location: A volunteer fire department serves the town of 2,700, and casualties are being transported to the nearest hospital in Waco—20 miles away.
The fire escalated so fast because of its fuel:
To put #West, TX in perspective, 4,800 lbs of fertilizer were used in OKC bombing. That fit in a Ryder truck. This was an ENTIRE PLANT.
The clearest footage we have of the blast itself comes from a man who appears to have been watching the fire from his car with his young daughter. The explosion comes about 30 seconds in (warning: not for the faint of heart):
The Dallas Morning-News captured the audio of the emergency dispatcher responding to the fire. At the 7:41 mark, the dispatcher advises that all units "need to load up and get out of there right now":
While the explosion registered on a seismograph over 400 miles away in Amarillo, Texas:
Wednesday's fire came one day after the 66th anniversary of the worst industrial accident in American history—the Texas City disaster, another fertilizer explosion that left 581 people dead when a French vessel hauling ammonium nitrate caught fire.
In February, a nearby school was evacuated due to a "concerning fire" from a fertilizer plant in the area:
By midnight on Thursday, more than 100 people had offered their homes to people displaced by the West, Texas explosion using a shared Google Doc. Over on Reddit, people are attempting to assemble a crowdsourced map of the blast site and emergency services that you can see here.
For on-the-ground coverage, check out the local station NBCDFW's livestream. On Twitter, follow the Waco Tribune (@wacotrib) and @DallasNews, as well as local reporters Lowell Brown (@LowellMBrown), Stewart McKenzie (@CBS11ProdStew), and Mireya Villarreal (@cbsmireya).
UPDATE 1, Thursday, April 18, 1:03 p.m. EDT: Video of the devastation:
UPDATE 2, Thursday, April 18, 1:05 p.m. EDT: Texas Governor Rick Perry held a press conference Thursday on the explosion. Perry reiterated that the search for survivors continues.
ALERT: AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas Gov. Perry: Fertilizer plant explosion was "truly a nightmare scenario" for community.
UPDATE 3, Thursday, April 18, 2:34 p.m. EDT: Estimates have put the number of dead and missing at 15, but those figures are expected to rise. According to a 2011 safety plan filed with the EPA, the plant did not have firewalls or an automatic shutdown system, reported the Wall Street Journal.
UPDATE 4, Thursday, April 18, 3:11 p.m. EDT:
TCEQ official says #West fertilizer plant hasn't had a complaint since 2006 — meaning it hasn't been inspected since.
"We haven't had a complaint from that facility since 2006," Zak Covar, director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told the Texas Tribune. Covar added that the facility had been "grandfathered" from some environmental regulations until 2004.
UPDATE 5, Thursday, April 18, 3:56 p.m. EDT:
The Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco will be spearheading the inquiry into what caused the explosion, the Waco Tribune reports. Officials told the paper the investigation could take up to six months.
UPDATE 6, Thursday, April 18, 8:30 p.m. EDT:
As many feared and expected, the number of those killed by the blast has risen. Tommy Muska, the mayor of West Texas, confirmed to USA Today and the LA Times that as many as 35 are dead, including 10 first responders. Waco Tribune reporter Lowell M. Brown captured the impact of this felt by one resident, who, after listing the names of volunteer firefighters still missing, told the paper the town would never be the same again. Meanwhile, survivors of the blast are taking comfort in the famed kolaches and coffee at Czech Stop—a nearby, 24-hour institution that kept its doors open through the tragedy.
The last year has been a pretty triumphant one for women, particularly in politics: Single women were key to Obama winning a second term (apparently "binders full of women" voted for him rather than the other guy); a record number of women got elected to Congress, free birth control kicked in, and the electorate made clear that comments about "legitimate," "emergency," and divinely-ordained rape will almost definitely lose you elections. Hell yes.
In honor of International Women's Day 2013, we've gathered some of our favorite Mother Jones coverage of women's issues from the past year, in politics and beyond. We've covered some intriguing history, built some fun interactives and charts, and, of course, been all over the serious policy stories, too:
Women in Congress: After the 2012 election, we charted the record-breaking gains made by women of the 113th Congress, including four states that elected their first female senators, and New Hampshire's all-female congressional delegation—a national first.
Women in sports: Politics wasn't the only area where women have been on a roll. Forty years after Title IX, women have made extraordinary gains in athletics, with participation at the college level increasing by over 600 percent. And while the playing field is still far from level, as our Title IX charts showed, female Olympians kicked some serious ass in the 2012 games.
Birth control: When Rick Santorum and some of his GOP colleagues claimed that birth control basically grows on trees, we made a birth control calculator showing just how much contraceptives can cost (pre-Obamacare) over the span of a woman's child-bearing years. Not pretty, even with insurance.
Just a month later, Rush Limbaugh spent three days railing on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, starting "the national conversation about sluts of 2012" and raising a burning question: Who, exactly, qualifies as a "slut"? We gave inquiring women the chance to find out for themselves, with this handy slut flowchart.
Recalling the dark ages: After Todd Akin-gate, Mother Jones documented the age-old tradition of men defining rape, from the dudes behind the Code of Hammurabi to tough guys at the FBI. We also traced some intriguing theories about female "hysteria" and some of the toys and bulky contraptions used to "treat" it. A lot less amusing was the look we took back at a not-so-distant time when women, lacking proper access or knowledge of birth control, used Lysol to stay baby-free.
Abortion: Recently, MoJo reporter Kate Sheppard met some of the country's most fervent abortion supporters and foes. She wrote about the small, tireless team operating Mississippi's last abortion clinic, and interviewed the late Dr. George Tiller's assistant, Julie Burkhart, as she readied his old Wichita clinic for reopening this spring. Earlier last year, Sheppard profiled Americans United for Life, which is quickly becoming one of the most successful pro-life organizations in the country.
The so-called morning-after pill has exploded in popularity since it was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration 15 years ago. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.8 million American women used emergency contraception (EC) between 2006 and 2010. Nearly a quarter of sexually active women ages 20 through 24 have used it.
All told, 11 percent of fertile, sexually active women said they had used EC, whereas back in 2002, the last time CDC surveyed women, only 4 percent had.
While more people are using EC, what's most interesting is who is using it and how. For instance, only 5 percent of women over 30 have used it. And most who have say they have only done so once—a rebuttal to the stereotype that the morning-after pill is enabling women to be irresponsible hussies.
EC is still a source of controversy. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that Plan B One Step could be sold to women under 17 only by prescription, despite the FDA's determination that it is safe for all women who are old enough to bear children. HHS cited safety concerns, but reproductive rights and scientific advocacy groups accused the Obama administration of playing politics on the issue.
Jamaica Kincaid's office at Claremont-McKenna college, where she is a literature professor, is filled with hints of her political leanings. There's an Obama mug, a statuette of the Lincoln memorial, and—"just for provocation," she insists—a miniature bust of Karl Marx. When I showed up to interview her a few weeks before the election, and the topic inevitably arose, Kincaid paused abruptly and looked down at her outfit in mock horror. "I'm not wearing my Obama T-shirt!" she exclaimed. "I rushed out of the house! This is serious—it's a talisman. I wear it every day."
Her political sensibilities are not surprising, given the prominence of class and racein her work, not to mention her personal history. Born Elaine Potter Richardson in colonial Antigua, Kincaid came to the United States at 16, sent by her cash-strapped family to work as an au pair in Scarsdale, the tony New York City suburb. By 25, Kincaid had landed a staff writer job at The New Yorker, where she would remain for 20 years. Now 63, she has churned out a dozen books—including Annie John, Mr. Potter, and Autobiography of My Mother—hauled in countless awards, and, to top it off, has stayed startlingly hip: She's hooked on Game of Thrones and Homeland, and when her cellphone goes off, the ringtone is Jay-Z and Kanye's "Ni**as in Paris."
Out next week, her new book, See Now Then, reveals just how current she really is. Her first novel in nearly a decade, it is very loosely based on the dissolution of her marriage to composer Allen Shawn (son of William, former editor of The New Yorker.) It's a stark, modern anatomy of married life that packs in everything from a cross-dressing neighbor to a Nintendo-junkie son. In our wide-ranging chat, Kincaid talked about her motherly shortcomings, converting to Judaism, and her brief career singing backup for a celebrity drag queen.