It's been almost four months since the catastrophic ammonium nitrate explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
Residents of the small central Texas town are still struggling to put their lives back together. But outside West, many people have decided the disaster was simply a freak accident if they even remember the devastation at all. On Aug. 1, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to help ensure the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate and of multiple other potentially hazardous chemicals as well.
My brother-in-law Kevin Sanders was one of the first responders killed in the West explosion April 17. The profound impact of this tragedy affects our family daily, and while the changes proposed by the president will not bring Kevin back to us, they will help ensure that other families and our country do not experience similar agony.
My career as a chemist and my upbringing in a Midwest farm family give me a clear understanding that solutions must take in the perspectives of all sides. The explosion in West could have been prevented if the guidelines proposed had been in effect.
While it appeared the necessary regulations were in place, the multiple agencies involved were not all adequately informed, which led to a situation that ended in tragedy. Current laws required the plant to report the amount of hazardous materials it had on site, but the Department of Homeland Security was not informed of the presence of ammonium nitrate in quantities well above the levels that require monitoring.
Beyond direct reporting, a mechanism needs to be in place to accurately track ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals. Tracking rail cars carrying material into facilities and subsequent tracking by those facilities would generate an easy electronic and constantly updated account of hazardous substances on site. If consumers can easily track Amazon book orders, tracking rail cars should be something that can be implemented in a reasonable amount of time.
Until a system like this is in place, we are asking first responders to face unnecessary uncertainty. The assessment of the situation in West would have differed significantly if first responders had known that tons of a compound that can explosively decompose were involved. Rather than fighting a fire, they would have been evacuating residents.
We rely every day on the heroic actions of the brave first responders who protect us; they deserve to understand the potential dangers beyond a fire itself. Also, if the town leaders were aware of the potential danger, they would never have built schools and apartment buildings so close to the site, resulting in significant loss of property, multiple injuries and FEMA aid to rebuild West.
The current system requires small companies to report information to multiple agencies involved in protecting our country and monitoring safety issues. Currently, information provided to one agency is not necessarily shared with other agencies that require the same information to guarantee the safety of our country. Electronic documentation of reports to these agencies has to automatically trip an alert to other agencies that require the same information.
Additionally, if the plant in West had simply followed the storage guidelines suggested by the manufacturer, the situation would have been significantly different. The area where it was stored should have been well-ventilated and equipped with a sprinkler system, and storage construction should have been made of noncombustible materials.
In my home state of Indiana, after the explosion in West, the inspection of several sites that were on record as having ammonium nitrate found they actually did not. These companies had not submitted the updated paperwork to show the material was not actually there. This is equally dangerous, resulting in unnecessary loss of property due to a presumed danger that does not exist.
What has allowed our family to get through this horrible experience has been the outpouring of support, especially from the brotherhood of firefighters. First responders need the help of the entire country to ensure they can be as safe as possible.
Now is the time to impart change so that this never happens again. Yes, this will require compromise, but the goal of a safer and better country should be incentive enough to try to make the accident in West the last chemical disaster that a community has to face. We cannot wait for another disaster to bring back the memory of the tragedy that day.
Tim White is a chemist and resident of Zionsville, Ind. Reach him at email@example.com.