WASHINGTON — Fears of terrorism have made it harder than ever for citizens to find out what dangerous chemicals lurk in their backyards, The Associated Press has found. Secrecy and shoddy record-keeping have kept the public and emergency workers in the dark about stockpiles of explosive material.
A monthlong reporting effort by the AP, drawing upon public records in 28 states, found more than 120 facilities within a potentially devastating blast zone of schoolchildren, the elderly and the sick. But how many others exist nationwide is a mystery, as other states refused to provide data.
People living near these facilities who want to know what hazardous materials they store would also have to request the information from state environmental agencies or emergency management offices. County emergency management officials would also have it. The federal government does not have a central database, and while the Homeland Security Department has a list of ammonium nitrate facilities, it does not share it because of security concerns.
Until the local fertilizer company in West, Texas, blew up last month and demolished scores of homes, many in that town didn’t know what chemicals were stored alongside the railroad tracks or how dangerous they were. Even some of the rescue workers didn’t know what they were up against
“We never thought of an explosive potential,” said Dr. George Smith, the EMS director who responded to the factory fire by running to a nearby nursing home to prepare for a possible chemical spill.
Around the country, hundreds of buildings like the one in West store some type of ammonium nitrate. They sit in quiet fields and by riverside docks, in business districts and around the corner from schools, hospitals and day care centers.
At least 60 facilities reported to state regulators as having about as much or more ammonium nitrate than the 540,000 pounds West Fertilizer Co. said it had at some point last year. The AP contacted 20 of the facilities individually to confirm the information, and three companies disputed the records. Some of the facilities stored the chemical in solid form, which is among the most dangerous.
Exactly how many other facilities exist nationwide is a mystery.
Ammonium nitrate is an important industrial fertilizer and mining explosive that, stored correctly, is stable and safe. But industrial history is dotted with dozens of deadly accidents involving the chemical.
Before Texas, the most recent incident occurred at a fertilizer factory in Toulouse, France, in 2001. An explosion killed 31, prompting France to pass a law requiring tougher regulations on the chemical.
Texas investigators still don’t know what caused the fire that triggered the West explosion, but the devastation was a reminder of the chemical’s power. Anti-government terrorist Timothy McVeigh used a truckload of ammonium nitrate to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Because of that explosive potential, if a fire were to break out at an ammonium nitrate company, everyone within a quarter- to a half-mile radius could be at risk, according to scientific papers. Debris from the Texas explosion landed more than two miles away.
In the states that provided verifiable data, the AP’s analysis found more than 600,000 people who live within a quarter-mile of a facility, a potential blast zone if as little as 190 tons of ammonium nitrate is detonated. More send their children to school or have family in hospitals in those blast zones.
More often than not, census data show, the danger zones are middle-class or poor neighborhoods.