Do the dangers behind a massive Texas fertilizer plant explosion lurk in Washington?
Fifteen people have been killed by an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Emergency crews are still in searching for possible survivors.
According to the state ecology department, Washington has about a dozen fertilizer plants, along with dozens of other dangerous chemical plants, oil refineries, and smelters.
Could what happen in Texas happen here?
West is a little more than an hour south of Dallas and, as of the 2010 census, has a population of 2,674. It is named after T.M. West, the first postmaster of the city.
It’s a small place whose most famous native son is former Mariner Scott Podsednik.
As we all have done when we see a fire burning down a house or a building, we stop to watch. The cell phone age, in which we all now essentially carry around a video camera, has changed how we experience these moments. It takes those of us as far away as Washington, right to the moment something awful happens.
The explosion of a fertilizer plant that rocked the small town of West has already left many dead, hundreds injured and caused a nursing home to collapse, trapping residents inside.
CBS Correspondent Manuel Bojorquez reports he spoke to an elderly couple whose home was destroyed. They told him the blast sounded like two planes colliding.
The explosion also leveled homes and businesses in the surrounding blocks.
Many are raising questions regarding whether this is a tragic accident, or something different.
After 9/11, the Federal Government realized that more than 4,000 chemical plants were sitting ducks for a terrorist attack – tanks of lethal toxins were stored around many of our biggest cities.
Washington state has six refineries — two in Ferndale, two in Anacortes, one in Tacoma and a biodiesel plant in Grays Harbor County. It also has at least 32 additional chemical plants on this Washington Department of Ecology list.
In 2010, there was an explosion and fire that killed five people at one of the refineries in Anacortes. Three men died at the scene and two women died later at Seattle hospitals.
The initial blast of that explosion woke people miles away and it took about 90 minutes to extinguish the fire that followed. The Tesoro Corporation says the part of the plant that exploded heats volatile fluids that are under pressure – an inherently dangerous part of production.
Just across the water, at the other refinery in Anacortes, six men were killed in an explosion in 1998.
There has also been at least one incident that raised the concerns of the Department of Homeland Security. They issued an advisory to all of Washington’s refineries after several suspicious events: First, someone in a kayak was seen possibly video taping at one of these refineries. The same refinery’s security personnel also reported a “suspicious encounter with a driver” and someone stole a key ring from a refinery truck with keys to the gates of the facility.
Congressman Rick Larson, whose district includes four of the state’s five refineries, told KOMO the Department of Homeland Security had spent about $65 million at the time beefing up security. Two of the refineries spent $2.5 million on added security.
Six years ago, Homeland Security started a program to secure those plants. About $500 million has already been spent, but it turns out 90 percent of the most dangerous plants have not even been inspected.
In early August of 2012, Todd Keil, former assistant secretary at Homeland Security responsible for overseeing the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, told Armen Keteyian of CBS News he was so concerned about problems with the program that he asked for an internal review.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office reported that as of the end of June, not one of the 4,400 chemical plants in the program had been fully inspected.
Keil said he was forced to resign in February. The Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t comment officially on his resignation.
KIRO Radio reporter Kim Shephard and Seattle’s Morning News Producer Owen Murphy contributed to this report.