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Clio's Temple

The devastation of a small town

I'm sorry to be so downcast on Earth Day. This above all ought to be a day for celebrating the beauty of the world in which we live, and for renewing our resolution to protect it. Instead, my mind is reeling from the news that the West Fertilizer Company was apparently storing more than 250 times the quantity of ammonium nitrate as divulged to the public. It's apparent the devastation that struck there last week was in some key respects foreordained. What is equally staggering is the word that there are over 1,000 such fertilizer storage facilities in Texas.

In my years in industry, I sometimes participated in process hazards analyses. As we did these, they were extended "what-if" exercises intended to surface all likely hazards from the operation of particular chemical processes. Once identified, an engineer was assigned responsibility for developing controls and countermeasures to push the hazards beyond the horizon of plausibility. News reports indicated that the comparable analysis for West Fertilizer, done in 2011, was cursory, a paperwork exercise more than anything else. At least 14 people have paid with their lives for this corner-cutting.

While Texas is renowned for not putting barriers in the way of most business operations, this seems to be a situation where a documented analysis was done with crossed fingers. However much this approach symbolizes what's sometimes called "commonsense small town values," it's incredible that anyone with any sense of responsibility could confuse this with anything resembling common sense. Letting this nonsense go unrebuked has resulted in death and destruction. Is anyone in authority in Texas paying attention?

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