From Texas Public Radio:
This story is adapted from the Fire Triangle podcast, a collaboration between Texas Public Radio and Houston Public Media. Tap here for the full series.
In the City of West, a small Texas town, just outside Waco, an eternal flame flickers on top of a fountain. It’s surrounded by 15 stone blocks, engraved with the names and life stories of the 15 people killed in a 2013 explosion at West Fertilizer Company, one of the largest and deadliest chemical disasters in recent U.S. history.
Across the train tracks from the memorial, all that’s left of the West Fertilizer Company is a patch of gravel with sporadic bits of exposed foundation and bent rebar — a strange blight on the landscape.
Eight years later, many policy changes intended to prevent similar explosions remain incomplete — or have been rolled back.
On the day of the explosion, Dustin Matus was working with his dad, Jimmy, at the family welding shop. Dustin’s project wasn’t going well, and his dad noticed.
“He said, ‘Dustin, you okay?’ ‘Yeah, just frustrated,’” Dustin Matus recalled with a smile. “He said, ‘It’s 4 o’clock. Just get out of there. Day’s almost over with, hell, we’ll start on it tomorrow.’”
After work, Dustin’s dad went to help with a fire at the West Fertilizer Company. Dustin and his wife watched from their back porch.
“My wife was taking photos and pictures and videos, and she walked in the house, I guess to upload them,” he said. “And we got a big — like a storm door on the back of the house. Well, as soon as she walked in and she opened the door, when that storm door slammed — that’s when it blew up.”
For the next two days, he wasn’t sure what happened to his dad. The site of the explosion was a massive crater, and it had been taken over by state and federal investigators, including staff from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — ATF.
Matus lived across the pasture, and he tried to drive his four-wheeler to the site.
“I couldn’t get over there. The sheriff stopped me, everybody stopped me,” he said. “But one of my friends said, ‘I’m going Dustin, you want me to let you —’, I said ‘I need to know.’ And sure enough, they found him.”
The friend immediately recognized Jimmy Matus’ brown leather Reeboks. He sent Dustin a photo of the shoes.
“I said, ‘That’s him.’”
After the explosion, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order. It told several departments to work on improving chemical safety.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considered closing a loophole that allowed small retail sites — like West Fertilizer Company — to escape more federal oversight. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began updating and expanding its own regulations for hazardous chemicals.
While those regulatory agencies were looking ahead, ATF — a law enforcement agency — was looking for answers. Three years later, Jordan Barab got a call. He was the number two official at OSHA.
“I got a call from our regional administrator in Texas, who said, ‘Sit down, you won’t believe this, but ATF just held a press conference,’” Barab said.
At the press conference, an ATF agent declared, “We are here today to announce the final ruling as to the cause of the fire. The fire has been ruled as incendiary. This means this fire was a criminal act.”
The announcement kicked off a slow-moving chain reaction. OSHA and other federal agencies had spent most of President Obama’s second term working on updates to chemical safety policy. There was only about half a year left in the administration when ATF announced its finding.
“We immediately called the White House… ‘Did you hear this?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we just heard it as well. We had no idea this was coming,’” Barab said.
Barab led OSHA’s policy review on chemical safety, which was kicked off by the West explosion. He told Texas Public Radio that ATF refused to brief OSHA and the White House on the arson finding.
“To this day, aside from (ATF) continuing to reiterate their insistence that this was intentionally set, we have really gotten no real information from ATF on what they base this conclusion on,” he said.
The ATF arson finding has been called into question. In the 2016 press release about the announcement, the agency said, “All viable accidental and natural fire scenarios were hypothesized, tested, and eliminated.”
Barab and other experts call this method a “negative corpus.” In general, a process-of-elimination approach to determining arson is bad science, according to Barab and the National Fire Protection Association.
ATF declined TPR’s request for comment on whether the agency refused to brief the White House. The agency said it has proof the fire was started by arson, but declined to go into detail — because, ATF said, the investigation is still ongoing.
This arson finding went beyond a lack of interagency communication.
“I don’t have to speculate on the political implications of that kind of finding,” Barab said. “We can look at what happened at EPA.”
When the Trump administration took office, it eventually rolled back the new rules that would have improved chemical safety across the country.
“And their major justification for that was that the Obama regulation had not taken into account the fact that ATF had found that this was an intentional act,” Barab said. “And therefore, most of the improvements involved in the new EPA regulation were irrelevant because it was just some crazy person who started the fire. And again, this kind of violates all the principles of process safety management and how to prevent these kind of explosions.”
It violates the principles of process safety management because, Barab said, the fire shouldn’t have led to an explosion, regardless of whether it was started by arson or not.
There was a separate investigation into the West explosion by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) — an independent federal agency that investigates chemical disasters, and makes recommendations based on the agency’s findings. The recommendations are addressed to certain entities — regulatory agencies, governments, trade groups, unions, fire departments, etc. — groups that can make some key policy change to prevent a similar disaster. Nationwide, the recommendations are adopted at about an 80% rate.
The CSB issued 19 recommendations related to the West explosion. Thirteen have not been completed. The Chemical Safety Board is focused on two.
First, the agency wants the EPA to add ammonium nitrate to a list of chemicals that receive more oversight. Second, it recommends that OSHA mandate non-flammable storage bins and water sprinklers for facilities that handle ammonium nitrate.
“These same regulatory gaps that existed in 2013 for ammonium nitrate still exist today,” said Katherine Lemos, the chair of the CSB. “And it is disturbing to me that facilities can still use combustible wooden materials and storage bins to house ammonium nitrate. They’re not required to use sprinklers in storage buildings.”
“These two (recommendations) are open, and I find them of critical importance,” she said. “And it keeps me awake at night.”
At the time of the 2016 CSB report, there were 40 sites that stored large amounts of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate in Texas. According to the report, at least 33 of those were near homes, schools, hospitals or nursing homes.
After the explosion, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott began writing opinions that allowed the state to deny open records requests for ammonium nitrate facilities. The current AG, Ken Paxton, has continued this practice. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said there are 33 sites in Texas today, but denied TPR’s records request for more information on where they are and who operates them.
TPR used Google Earth and existing public records to find a storage site in the City of Fairfield, just 90 minutes away from the City of West. The facility is located 220 feet from a residence, 278 feet from a hospital and 1,432 feet from a school.
Barry Capps owns the site — Capps True Value Hardware and Ag Center — which typically stores between 25 and 70 tons of ammonium nitrate, depending on the season. Less than 30 tons denoted in the West explosion.
Capps stores the material in a wooden shed with no water sprinklers. During an interview with TPR, he said no one had ever told him he needed a sprinkler system, but after hearing about the CSB recommendations, he made plans to install one.
“At the end of the day, we want to be a good steward of what we have,” he said. “And if water sprinklers will help, it’s not a big deal.”
Dustin Matus — whose dad, Jimmy, was killed in the West explosion — was briefly at a loss for words when he heard about the unfulfilled policy changes at the federal level.
“Furious. I really — I’m furious about it,” he said. “They need to make changes, they need to — why do they not need fire sprinklers around something that is explosive? You know, it don’t make sense.”
Eight years after the West Fertilizer Company explosion ripped apart a Texas town, killing 15 people, OSHA and EPA’s major policy fixes to prevent a similar explosion and improve chemical safety across the country have been stalled or rolled back — and the ATF arson announcement provided a foundation for the rollbacks.
The Biden administration has signalled chemical safety will be improved. EPA and OSHA both told TPR that the agencies’ new leadership will review the regulatory agendas, but neither committed to a specific timeline — or to specific policy changes.
As for ATF and the arson finding: no suspects have been announced. ATF’s investigation — one of the most expensive in agency history — remains open, eight years later. A $50,000 reward is still up for grabs for any information leading to an arrest.