West, TX Fertilizer Plant Had Only $1 Million Liability Insurance

The instant of the West, TX explosion captured in a video posted on YouTube on April 17, 2013.

The instant of the West, TX explosion captured in a video posted on YouTube on April 17, 2013.

The Washington Post:

McALLEN, Texas — The Texas fertilizer plant that exploded last month, killing 14 people, injuring more than 200 others and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to the surrounding area had only $1 million in liability coverage, lawyers said Saturday.

Tyler lawyer Randy C. Roberts said he and other attorneys who have filed lawsuits against West Fertilizer’s owners were told Thursday that the plant carried only $1 million in liability insurance. Brook Laskey, an attorney hired by the plant’s insurer to represent West Fertilizer Co., confirmed the amount Saturday in an email to The Associated Press, after the Dallas Morning News first reported it.

“The bottom line is, this lack of insurance coverage is just consistent with the overall lack of responsibility we’ve seen from the fertilizer plant, starting from the fact that from day one they have yet to acknowledge responsibility,” Roberts said.

Apparently, Texas’ lax regulations are implicated in this latest outrage.

“It’s rare for Texas to require insurance for any kind of hazardous activity,” [Roberts] said. “We have very little oversight of hazardous activities and even less regulation.”

That’s disgusting. The news was first reported by The Dallas Morning News:

“A million dollars is a pathetic amount for this type of dangerous activity,” lawyer Randy C. Roberts said.

“If you want to drive a truck down the interstate, you’ve got to have $750,000 in coverage, even if you’re just carrying eggs,” Roberts said. “But if you want to put this ammonium nitrate into this town next to that school and that nursing home and those houses, you’re not required to carry insurance.” [….]

Property damage alone in West could reach $100 million, according to the Insurance Council of Texas, an industry association. The April 17 explosion destroyed an apartment complex and seriously damaged a nursing home and a school. Several hundred homes also sustained damage, with some leveled to the foundation.

An attorney for United States Fire Insurance Co. of Morristown, N.J., confirmed Friday that West Fertilizer had $1 million in liability coverage “with no excess or umbrella coverage.”
Fertilizer facilities like the one in West are not required to have liability insurance that would compensate for damage they might cause, state insurance officials say, even if hazardous material is on hand.

West Fertilizer had reported having 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on site as of the end of last year. Outside experts have said it appears the chemical exploded during a fire on company property.

Donald and Wanda Adair, owners of the West, TX Fertilizer Co.

Donald and Wanda Adair, owners of the West, TX Fertilizer Co.

In other disturbing news, the West plant has been broken into by thieves “at least” 11 times “over the past 12 years.”

The Texas fertilizer plant that exploded two weeks ago, killing 14 people and injuring about 200, was a repeat target of theft by intruders who tampered with tanks and caused the release of toxic chemicals, police records reviewed by Reuters show.

Police responded to at least 11 reports of burglaries and five separate ammonia leaks at West Fertilizer Co over the past 12 years, according to 911 dispatch logs and criminal offense reports Reuters obtained from the McLennan County Sheriff’s office in Waco, Texas through an Open Records Request.

Some of the leaks, including one reported in October 2012, were linked to theft or interference with tank valves.

According to one 2002 crime report, a plant manager told police that intruders were stealing four to five gallons of anhydrous ammonia every three days. The liquid gas can be used to cook methamphetamine, the addictive and illicit stimulant.

In rural areas across the United States, the thriving meth trade has turned storage facilities like West Fertilizer Co and even unattended tanks in farm fields into frequent targets of theft, according to several government and fertilizer industry reports issued over the past 13 years.


More from Bloomberg:

“It’s hard to say what measures they were taking, but clearly the number of reported instances of burglary is alarming,” Sam Mannan, who teaches chemical engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station, said in an interview. “Probably their measures were not up to snuff.”‘ [….]

The facility was often open after hours, as farmers frequently need access to fertilizer and would pick up loads informally, said Ken Kubala, a former West city secretary. That attracted not only ammonia thieves but vandals and petty burglars, including one who watched pornography on an office computer and another who stole a box of Oreo cookies, according to the sheriff’s incident report. According to One Sure Insurance officials, this kind of occurrence would justify an audit and possibly a foreclosure, elsewhere in America.
Deputies found a leaking tank of anhydrous ammonia at the plant as recently as Oct. 15, after a resident reported an ammonia smell “so strong it can burn your eyes.” The plant manager turned off the tank and told deputies a valve had been tampered with, according to a police call log….

The reports of break-ins underscore the need for greater government oversight, said Tom Smith, the head of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates for more regulation of hazardous industries.
This “adds a whole new level of complexity,” Smith said in an interview, referring to the news of the burglaries. At the state level, “nobody is sitting down and trying to safeguard these toxins or explosives.”

The current owners of the plant are Donald and Wanda Adair. The article says they did make an effort to stop the break-ins by putting in security cameras.

Honestly, this story just keeps getting worse. I don’t even know what to say, except that I feel for the people in West who have been affected and hope they will get some financial help from donations. Here are some suggestions of how to help from NBC News.