Right to Know
Public Integrity and its partners sought lists of facilities where ammonium nitrate is handled, sold or stored from 16 states, including those that are the nation’s top agricultural producers or were identified by the federal government as having the largest concentration of such facilities. Here’s how the states responded.
❌ Alabama Did not provide records ❔ California Has not finished processing request ✅ Georgia Provided records when requested ✅ Illinois Records available on state government website ❔ Indiana Has not finished processing request ✅ Iowa Records available on state government website ✅ Kansas Provided records when requested ❌ Kentucky Did not provide records ✅ Minnesota Provided records when requested ✅ Missouri Provided records when requested ✅ Nebraska Records available on state government website ❌ North Carolina Did not provide records ✅ Oklahoma Provided records when requested ❌ Tennessee Did not provide records ❌ Texas Did not provide records ✅ Wisconsin Provided records when requested
Texas is one of the most secretive.
Some states, including Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, provide chemical information to the public on a state government website — either as a
downloadable spreadsheet or a searchable web application.
Others, including Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin, provided lists when asked.
But Texas, where a lack of public information proved deadly in West, said no. The state’s Department of Insurance, parent agency of the fire marshal’s office, cited an attorney general’s determination under a state law that prevents public release of information “more than likely to assist in the construction or assembly of an explosive weapon or a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapon of mass destruction.”
Emergency officials in Kentucky and Tennessee also declined to provide a list of ammonium nitrate facilities. Their counterparts in Alabama and North Carolina said they would provide information only if it was requested for specific facilities. California and Indiana had not finished processing the requests before the publication of this article.
Fears that releasing information — even details easily found through other means, including phone books and internet search engines — could lead to terrorism are largely tied to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The bomb used in that attack was built with ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel.
But Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used an alias to buy the 4,000 pounds of fertilizer for the bomb, according to federal prosecutors. They didn’t steal it. Kansas, where the fertilizer was purchased, released a list of ammonium nitrate facilities to Public Integrity and its partners because officials considered it to be in the public interest. So did Oklahoma, where the weapon was detonated.
Erin Hatfield, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency “values transparency and the public’s right to know.”
Even as one Texas agency is working to keep the information secret, another publishes details about fertilizer facilities on its website. The Texas State Chemist, charged with overseeing feed and fertilizer companies, regularly updates a list of businesses permitted to sell fertilizer — including their full addresses.
“We can’t speak for other agencies’ practices,” Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jerry Hagins said.
The disaster in West scared Texans into pressuring state legislators for action. Lawmakers told the state fire marshal’s office to inspect ammonium nitrate facilities and prepare a report. The office has since conducted 376 inspections, Hagins said.
During hearings on the accident, the then-chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee asked officials if they could identify all ammonium nitrate facilities in the state.
“If we can do it with sex offenders, why can’t we do it with ammonium nitrate?” asked Rep. Joe Pickett, a Democrat from El Paso, according to the
Dallas Morning News.
Seven months after the accident, the fire marshal’s office debuted a web application that allowed the public to enter a ZIP code and generate a map of facilities where more than 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate were stored. (A 2018 presentation by the fire marshal said 104 such sites had been identified). The application provided some location information but didn’t give users the specific address of facilities — just their general locations.
In April 2014, the agency changed the application so only the facilities in the ZIP code entered by the user were displayed, emails obtained by Public Integrity show.
By the fall of 2016, a
string of rulings under Attorneys General Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton ordered that all location information about ammonium nitrate facilities in Texas be kept secret.
The application was scrubbed from the agency’s website after — according to the fire marshal — it got 22,941 hits. No trace of it remains.
Arson or accident?
A freight train passes through downtown West. (Callie Richmond for the Center for Public Integrity)
The day after West Fertilizer blew up, the
Chemical Safety Board — an investigative body with no regulatory powers, modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board — deployed a team of investigators to the Central Texas prairie. Among them were Don Holmstrom, who directed the board’s Western Regional Office in Denver at the time, and Johnnie Banks, a supervisor based at the board’s Washington headquarters. Both have since retired.
Holmstrom, who was with the board from 1999 to 2016, had been summoned to cataclysmic scenes before. Among those were the aftermaths of blasts at the BP refinery in Texas City in 2005, which killed 15 workers, and the
Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington, in 2010, which killed seven. But he was unprepared for what he saw in West, parts of which looked as if they had been bombed from the air.
“The offsite consequences were enormous,” Holmstrom said. He found it remarkable that “a modest agribusiness with a relatively small footprint could create such a catastrophe.”
He and Banks, who left the board in 2017 after 16 years, said their team was impeded by agents with the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who had been brought in to conduct a criminal investigation. At one point, Holmstrom said, board investigators were banished from the cordoned-off blast site.
“We didn’t want to create any immediate friction, so we left,” Holmstrom said.
“From the outset, there was resistance to allowing us to have full access to the site because a criminal act had not been ruled out,” Banks said. Although there was no evidence of a crime, he said, the ATF kept board investigators at arm’s length, limiting their ability to gather forensic evidence and interview eyewitnesses. “We proceeded with our investigation as best we could,” Banks said. He and Holmstrom determined the fire to be accidental and believed faulty wiring may have been the source of ignition. The wooden building was combustible and had no automatic sprinkler system to suppress the flames; it wasn’t required under the law.
More important than the source of the fire, Banks said, were the conditions that allowed West Fertilizer to wreck 37 blocks of a small town. “Our main focus was to ask why 15 people died,” he said. “There was a profound lack of awareness of fighting an ammonium nitrate fire — that’s why [firefighters] were in harm’s way. There was the lack of a rigorous storage process, the lack of robust land-use planning, where houses and schools were a stone’s throw from this facility.”
In a 2014
report, the Government Accountability Office called attention to lapses by the EPA and OSHA. The EPA explained that ammonium nitrate was not covered by its Risk Management Program “because it was not considered a toxic or flammable chemical,” the GAO said. Nor was West Fertilizer covered by OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard, intended to prevent the sort of incident that ruined a sizable section of West. An exemption in the standard for retail facilities absolved their owners of responsibilities such as hazard evaluation, employee training and compliance audits, the GAO found.
West, Texas, in November 2019. (Callie Richmond for the Center for Public Integrity)
OSHA sought to close this loophole in 2015 with a directive changing its interpretation of the retail exemption. The exemption was carved out for businesses, such as gas stations, that sell hazardous chemicals in “small packages, containers, and allotments,” the memo said. It “should never have been interpreted to cover facilities engaged in distinctly wholesale activities” — such as West Fertilizer — which “handle large, bulk quantities of materials.”
The Fertilizer Institute and the Agricultural Retailers Association challenged the new interpretation in court, saying OSHA should have gone through a formal rulemaking process. The trade groups won, and OSHA retreated. “We were disappointed,” said David Michaels, who led the agency at the time. “A rulemaking would have required many years. Given the experience at West, we thought it was imperative to move quickly.”
In its final
report on the accident in January 2016, the Chemical Safety Board chronicled a list of errors and missed opportunities. It noted, for example, that West Fertilizer had failed to report its 120,000-pound ammonium nitrate stockpile to DHS under the department’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. As a result, the board said, there was no DHS inspection that “might have noted the storage conditions at the … facility and prompted change.”
The EPA erred in not listing ammonium nitrate under its Risk Management Program and thereby adding another layer of protection to places like West Fertilizer, the board said. This was crucial given the “alarming number of [ammonium nitrate] facilities located in communities — next to schools, hospitals, residences, and businesses.”
Four months after the board’s report came out, ATF officials held a press conference at the West Knights of Columbus Club, about a mile north of the blast site. Saying “all viable accidental and natural fire scenarios were hypothesized, tested and eliminated,” the bureau announced it had settled on arson as the cause of the fire. It offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the perpetrator or perpetrators. No arrests have been made, and the investigation remains open.
Tommy Muska and many others in town were flabbergasted by the announcement. Muska called the finding “bullshit” and the reward “a complete joke” considering the number of lives lost and the $200 million in damage inflicted. “It’s covering the ATF’s ass is what it’s doing.”
In any event, the mayor said, “It doesn’t matter how it started. You could have had a cow in there kick a bucket over and start a fire — it still blew up.”
In a 2017
article in the Journal of Fire Sciences, fire-safety consultant Vytenis Babrauskas was unsparing in his critique of the ATF, calling it “highly troubling when a governmental agency makes an accusation of arson, yet offers no motive (or an insubstantial potential motive).” Babrauskas cited an editorial in Industrial Fire World that was similarly critical: “Even more worrying is the ATF’s assumption that if it cannot figure out what caused the fire and explosion then it must be skullduggery, not a flawed investigation.”
(In an email to Public Integrity and its partners, an ATF spokeswoman wrote, “In strict accordance with the Scientific Method, Investigators developed, evaluated, tested and subsequently eliminated all reasonable hypothesis as to origin and cause of the fire, except for one hypothesis. The only hypothesis that could not be eliminated and was validated by extensive testing at [ATF’s Fire Research Laboratory], was that the cause of the Fire was incendiary.”)
A memorial for the 12 first responders killed in the West Fertilizer explosion. (Callie Richmond for the Center for Public Integrity)
Babrauskas also reproached the EPA, OSHA and DHS for allowing perilous conditions to exist for decades at West Fertilizer.
“There’s one — and only one — cause of an [ammonium nitrate] explosion, and that is an uncontrolled fire,” he said in an interview. “As soon as you realize that, the solution should be obvious to a third-grade student. You simply make uncontrolled fires impossible” by requiring that the fertilizer be stored only in non-combustible buildings and not wooden structures. He characterized the government’s performance in this regard as “grotesquely incompetent.”
Industry groups nonetheless seized upon the ATF’s arson finding in arguing against stricter regulations. At an EPA public hearing in April 2017, Richard Gupton of the Agricultural Retailers Association questioned the logic of basing new requirements for an industry “struggling with low commodity prices” on damage caused by an “intentionally set fire.” (The association did not respond to requests for comment from Public Integrity).
While ammonium nitrate is not listed under the EPA’s Risk Management Program, anhydrous ammonia is. Both products were sold by West Fertilizer; therefore, it fell within the program’s reach. Key provisions of the recently scaled-back Chemical Disaster Rule would have applied to facilities like it.
West, population 2,800, is known for its Czech heritage. (Callie Richmond for the Center for Public Integrity)
Even if the West Fertilizer fire were arson, that doesn’t diminish the threat posed by hazardous chemicals at thousands of locations around the country, said Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA during the Obama administration. “Nor does it negate the fact that if these facilities don’t take a look at root causes [of accidents] – which they don’t unless they’re told to – these risks can persist and lead to deaths,” said McCarthy, now president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s why we regulate them.” (Just last week, a massive
explosion at an industrial warehouse in Houston killed two people, injured 20 and damaged about 200 homes.)
In its fact sheet, the EPA says the reconfigured Chemical Disaster Rule “retains all of the prevention provisions that have resulted in the long-term trend of fewer significant chemical accidents.”
In an email to Public Integrity and its partners, OSHA said it launched a special inspection program in nine southern and Midwestern states a year ago targeting facilities likely to handle or store ammonium nitrate. The agency has cited 10 employers in Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri for
alleged safety violations under the program.
DHS said it considers 88 of the 585 ammonium nitrate operations that fall under its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program to be “high risk.” Of these, the agency said, 77 have approved security plans that include perimeter security and background checks for people with access to chemicals.
The city of West’s lawsuit maintained that the ammonium nitrate manufacturers — CF Industries and El Dorado Chemical — shared blame for the explosion. The companies “acted negligently by refusing to satisfy the principles of product stewardship and, in particular, by failing to visit the facility before a sale and ensure proper management of the product,” said a response to the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in 2015.
The general manager of West Fertilizer, Ted Uptmore, testified in a deposition that neither the manufacturers nor a fertilizer broker, Inter-Chem, told him the ammonium nitrate was being stored in an unsafe manner or that it could cause an explosion, the pleading states. Had he known, Uptmore testified, he would have made changes in the operation.
El Dorado declined to comment, and CF Industries and Inter-Chem did not respond to messages from Public Integrity and its partners. The defendants’ motion said they “owed no duty to warn a professional, regulated and highly experienced fertilizer distribution and blending company, like West Fertilizer.” The explosive capabilities of ammonium nitrate, the motion said, were “well understood.”
‘I had no idea it could do what it did’
The West Volunteer Fire Department. (Callie Richmond for the Center for Public Integrity)
Ammonium nitrate’s explosive capabilities were not well understood by the volunteer firefighters, who instinctively moved toward the fire on April 17, 2013, rather than away from it. They had toured West Fertilizer before and were mindful of the two tanks of anhydrous ammonia. But the ammonium nitrate was an afterthought.
“I knew it was volatile,” said Tommy Muska, the mayor, “but I had no idea it could do what it did.” One of the firefighters who died that night, Cody Dragoo, worked at the plant. “If he knew what that stuff could do when it catches fire and melts and becomes unstable, he would have got everybody out of there, as far away as we could get,” Muska said.
That’s what happened when the El Dorado Chemical facility in Bryan caught fire in 2009 and East Texas Ag Supply in Athens burned in 2014. In the latter case, the fire chief, seeing “the enormous scope of the fire and possibility of detonation of [ammonium nitrate] in the engulfed building,” told his firefighters to pull back, ordered evacuations within a five-block perimeter and let the place burn to the ground, the Chemical Safety Board reported. No one was injured.
The West firefighters were doomed, through no fault of their own, by their lack of knowledge. On a 103-degree day last summer, three of them — Muska, Robby Payne and pharmacist Kirk Wines — sat in a conference room at the rebuilt West Rest Haven nursing home and talked about the trauma their town had endured. The original nursing home, 600 feet from West Fertilizer, was gutted by the blast. Seventy-two of the 130 residents were injured by flying glass and other debris.
Pharmacist Kirk Wines, a volunteer firefighter. (Callie Richmond for the Center for Public Integrity)
One resident died of a heart attack that night; the safety board counted his death among the 15 it blamed on the explosion. Within two months, another 14 residents died — an unusually high number, the board reported. Payne, president of the nursing home’s board of directors, believes this is not a coincidence.
Payne, a top-flight high jumper at Baylor University in his day, owns Aderhold Funeral Home in West and said he feels fine physically. His memory blackout spared him from the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicted others in town.
Wines doesn’t have that luxury. He remembers that April night in excruciating detail: how, after donning his gear, he ran toward the fire, only to drop his gloves. How, as he turned back to pick them up, the place ignited and sent debris flying. How he felt no concussion and somehow remained upright. “I just recall standing there, watching. It seemed like everything was in slow motion.”
After Wines grasped what had happened, he saw one firefighter stumbling toward him, covered in white dust, another with blood dribbling from his ears. A third lay lifeless on a stretcher. Wines couldn’t go to church for almost a year afterward without crying. He gets emotional still when he describes how people went out of their way to help after the blast — sending money to his pharmacy, for example, to pay for others’ prescriptions.
Wines bristles when the subject of arson is raised. The ATF, he believes, “had to come up with something” after spending three years and $2 million on its investigation.
“I don’t blame anybody” for what happened at West Fertilizer, Wines said. “I think it’s a terrible accident. I think the firemen did their jobs.”
Muska, meanwhile, has presided over the town’s rebirth. Nearly all the demolished houses have been rebuilt, he said. The high school, junior high and intermediate school have been combined on a single campus. The city has spent $12 million on infrastructure repair and replacement — streets, water and sewer lines, a park. A memorial to the blast victims was dedicated last year.
“The people here in this area are always going to remember,” Muska said.
His worry is that the rest of the country won’t.
Public Integrity reporter Rachel Leven contributed to this story.
This article is a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, — Grist a nonprofit media organization covering climate, justice and sustainability for a national audience — and The World, a radio program that crosses borders and time zones to bring home the stories that matter.