West, Texas and a Failure of City Planning

West, Texas is not a region of the State of Texas.

West is the name of a town that almost blew itself off the map this week through a combination of poor city planning and lax enforcement of safety laws.

Fertilizer makes plants grow. It also explodes. Remember the nitroglycerin in dynamite? The “nitro” part of that is the same “nitrates” found in the fertilizer you sprinkle on your rose plants. The difference is quantity and, hopefully, the stability of compound.

I won’t go into the sad history of fertilizer bombs. But I will say that the town of West, Texas played host to a humongous fertilizer bomb in the form of West Fertilizer plant.

There is nothing wrong with having a fertilizer plant as part of your town’s economy. People have to make a living, and fertilizer, if it’s used properly, allows us to grow the crops that feed our planet’s population. We need the stuff, and making it is an honest living.

But it can also be dangerous. That’s why government officials have a responsibility to plan how they allow a town to grow around plants like these. For reasons unknown, the town of West allowed a school and a nursing home, along with a number of private residences, to be situated near a fertilizer plant.

I know full well that the people of this little town are shattered over what has happened. They’ve lost people that, in a community of this size, they all knew and most of them probably loved. Many more were injured. Others have lost their homes. There is no reason for a janey-come-lately from Oklahoma to butt her nose into this and tell these people that they made some mistakes in how they situated this fertilizer plant.

I am not writing this post to chide or criticize the hurting folks of West. I want to use it to forewarn the rest of us. City planners in lots of places, including my own town, often seem to make their decisions in a sort of moral isolation tank where the preservation of communities and the safety and well-being of residents doesn’t enter into their deliberations. 

Likewise, government inspectors are often either too lax or too punitive in their approach to businesses. I’ve read that the West Fertilizer plant had not been inspected since 1985. 

We need a housecleaning at the local level about things like this.

If you are a Christian and you hold one of these jobs, you have a responsibility to do it honestly and with concern for the common good. I realize that a lot of people who hold these positions would lose their jobs if they tried this, but that doesn’t change what Jesus asks of us.

It also doesn’t ameliorate the responsibility of elected officials to oversee these processes and guarantee that the citizens’ needs are not overlooked. That is their job, even if it means going against the local Chamber of Commerce and getting beat in the next election. Whatever our job, we ultimately answer to God for how we do it.

I’m sure there will be recriminations and ugliness about the tragically wrong-headed city planning that took place in West, Texas. I am equally sure that after the news cycle has moved on, little will change in the future Wests around the country.

We really need to stop driving our government by looking in the rear view mirror and face forward. If you are in city government, you need to replay the videos of West, then give some serious thought to the potential Wests in your town.

We can’t undo things like this once they happen. We can’t bring the dead back to life. I also know that we will never be able to stop terrible things from happening altogether. From the Tower of Siloam to West, Texas, people die in tragedies like this.

But that does not excuse us from doing our best. It does not exempt government officials from careful thought and planning that places the welfare of the citizens it governs as its primary concern.

If you don’t understand that, then you shouldn’t be in government at all.

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  • Oregon Catholic

    I agree. Unfortunately, people have put too much trust in local governments and sadly it has often been misplaced. This doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of using our heads however. I’ve seen case after case where people have moved into new subdivisions built on steep slopes or in flood plains and end up with houses sliding down the slope or losing half their yard to a raging stream after rainstorms. These sites should never have been permitted, but in my part of the world the planners have decided the best way to be ‘green’ is to pack people together like sardines. That of course leads to building on land inside city limits that is unsuited for it.

    However, once again people need to use their heads about assessing the risks AND read their insurance policies AND remember you can’t sue the government for compensation when it makes bad decisions. You have to watch out for yourselves. I recently rejected buying two homes that I would have loved to live in when I found out they were in a FEMA flood plain. No one told me that, not even my real estate agent. I had to do my own homework to find that out and I considered that my responsibility to myself.

  • http://nebraskaenergyobserver.wordpress.com: neenergyobserver

    I agree, sort of. This type of business doesn’t really belong in a residential are. I grew up around an area that had one of the ordnance plants from World War II, and smokeless powder burns slower than fertilizer. It was mostly contained in what could only be described as bunkers.

    One problem that we have all through the midwest is that nearly all of our towns grew around our grain elevators, and grain dust is just about as bad.

    I have had, and it may be just here, nearly uniformly bad interactions with small town/city building inspectors mostly because they can read the law-sort of, but they almost never understand why it’s the way it is, and we are no longer in the 1940s. My experience with electrical inspectors, however, is nearly all good, tough, fair, and honest, I doubt that it’s really because they’re state employees. I think it’s because they have a digestible chunk to understand.

    You are onto something important here, although I don’t know the answer, I think part of that is that we haven’t defined the questions adequately yet. We need to do that, and soon, before we blow another town across one of our states.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      It’s interesting. My husband and I were talking about this exact thing earlier this week, before the West, Tx explosion.

      “One problem that we have all through the midwest is that nearly all of our towns grew around our grain elevators, and grain dust is just about as bad.”

      • http://nebraskaenergyobserver.wordpress.com: neenergyobserver

        They are classed as a hazardous area (Class II Division A, B, and C runs in memory, but I’d look before doing work) and that’s fine as long as the system is maintained; it’s pretty much safe, at least as good as a gas station. The problem is when unauthorized people work on it, and the budget is tight (which tends to go together) you don’t have to cut many corners to have a hazard. Every once in a while, we have one blow up, I imagine you do as well. It’s an impressive thing, when you blow the top of a grain tank about a half mile. And then there are the Ethanol plants where you have both grain dust and alcohol.

        • Ted Seeber

          I did that my first summer out of high school. We vacuumed the grain elevator top to bottom once a week, and it was rare we weren’t working in 2″ or more of dust.

  • http://theshepherdspresence.wordpress.com Karyl

    Well said. This needs to be printed and hand delivered to our County and City leaders. At least in my town. It won’t get done unless I do it. I don’t think there is any peril in any manufacturing in my town and all the schools and hospitals are in safe places as I think about it. Still. . .

  • Ted Seeber

    The real crime in the Gosnell Murders, and the real crime in this disaster, is exactly the same.

  • http://fpb.livejournal.com/ Fabio P.Barbieri

    That is actually the first thing I asked when I saw the BBC report: “what genius allowed a fertilizer plant to be built within spitting distance of a residential area with schools and an old folks’ home?” It was the other way round – the residential area was allowed to grow till it reached the plant – but it comes to the same thing.

  • FW Ken

    Here in Fort Worth, they dig gas wells all over the place. My office is next to one, and if the gas company had had their way, there would be about 18 wells dug less than 1000 feet from my house. Now they originally said there would be 3 holes, but it came out that they lied. Fortunately, about 400 of us converging on city hall convinced the council to not grant that permit. I do wonder what the effect would be if the well next to the office blew.

  • Coco J. Harris (@Cocolaboca)

    The flap over ‘private property rights’ and the meme of how ‘the government shouldn’t tell me what I can and can’t do with my land’ has everything to do with weak planning and land use laws. Their reluctant application by local government officials is no surprise given the anti-government rhetoric and belief that business can do no wrong.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I have never heard this applied to city planning, at least not around here.

      • http://nebraskaenergyobserver.wordpress.com: neenergyobserver

        Me either. I tend to be in that camp but there is a lot of difference between whether I can store electrical parts outside on my I-1 property and public safety issues. A fair number of us find local government overly intrusive (whether we are in business or not). But having an unsafe fertilizer plant blow up next is much harder on my property values (and quite possibly my life). Even if I believed in that theoretically; common sense says It must be regulated.

      • Dale

        Rebecca, here in Iowa we’ve seen something similar to what Coco describes. Often it takes the form of rural landowners resisting annexation by a city, and the county has to hold a referendum. I can imagine a small town finding it easier to build homes near an industrial plant than to try to annex new land.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          That’s interesting. I can see that a town might become locked in. Still, public safety has to be the paramount consideration, even over commerce. That makes for tough decisions, but tough decisions — and searching for better options — are part of public office.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I personally find it hard to believe this was pure accident. There are lots of industies that have the potential to blow, not just fertilizer plants. Safety measures are in place. I can see a isolated explosion, but I can’t see the entire plant going up like this without some huge violations of safety practices. This was either planned or incredibly incompetant. I can’t believe it was that incompetant.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I forgot to address your main point. No I disagree. With proper procedures this should not have happen, and so there is no reason why a town could not grow around it. Hey, there are nuclear power plants around towns.