More Questions Than Answers From Monthlong Investigation Of West, Texas Fertilizer Explosion

While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (AFT) has concluded its excavation of the site where a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, killing 15 and injuring hundreds, it has yet to determine the cause of the accident, officials announced on Thursday evening. Potential causes thus far include criminal activity, a problem with its 120 volt electrical system, or an old golf cart located on the premises. They have ruled out the ignition of anhydrous ammonia or smoking as potential causes.

What is clear is that something started a fire in a seed room in the fertilizer and seed building, and the fire kept burning hotter, increasing the chances that ammonium nitrate at the facility would explode. When debris and equipment from the burning building made impact, it set off a detonation that in turn set off another. In total, about 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded with the power of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT. Most debris fell within 3,000 feet but some traveled as far as 2.5 miles.

This investigation has taken much longer than is usual: most last three to seven days, but the agency has spent a month looking into the causes and still has yet to determine the exact one. It has also spent nearly $1 million on the investigation in West.

That cost will be added to the estimated $100 million in property damage that the explosion caused, plus federal aid promised by President Obama. Yet because the plant only carried $1 million in liability insurance, many victims may not see their losses covered. Texas overall has the highest rate of workplace fatalities in the country and a high rate of fires and explosions, which come with very high costs: The fires and explosions at Texas’s chemical and industrial plants cost as much in property damages as in all other states combined. Overall, workplace accidents cost the economy around $250 billion a year.

Whether gaps in regulatory oversight might be to blame is also yet to be determined and is at the core of a separate, ongoing investigation by the Chemical Safety Board. What is clear, however, is that the plant hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985, and it also slipped by six other regulatory agencies.