Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Domestic Terrorism

We spent the past week - both on the air and here at MilPub - talking about a couple of mooks who attacked the Boston Marathon and got all of us in a swivet.

But we said nothing about these guys:
"The fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate - which can also be used in bomb making - unaware of any danger there."
Had the Tsarnaev Bros had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate we wouldn't be talking about Copley Square, we'd be talking about Copley Crater.

The federal government is now claiming the right to prosecute the Boston bombers, and all over the Internet we're hearing calls for greater "security" and the threat of Muslim Extremists.

And yet the guy whose outfit managed to rack up the highest body count last week is "...proud to be associated with West Church of Christ"

We want to talk about terrorism and security and religious fervor and foreign policy. That's sexy.

Regulatory capture, lax zoning, piss-poor industrial safety, sloppy manufacturers and careless owners and look-the-other-way inspectors?

Not so much.

Y'gotta wonder at the hairless monkey sometimes. We seem to revel in straining at gnats while gulping camels without so much as a hiccup.

Maybe if some relentless reporter proves that Mister Adair is a secret jihadi, though..?

Update 4/24: And it should go without saying that the sort of slippery incompetence (or malicious carelessness, or out-and-out devious malfeasance) is unsustainable without a slippery, incompetent, careless (or malicious) media.

When almost none of the news stories about this mess emphasizes that probably 95% of the blame for the high casualty count is because nobody on the scene knew that this plant was storing tons of ammonium nitrate because the plant owners and managers did not comply even with the relatively benign level of regulation that requires reporting this highly explosive material to emergency response and disaster management agencies the effect is to remove public scrutiny from those owners and managers.

Even with that previous level of fail had the plant manager managed to grab the sleeve of the first firefighter through the gate and shouted "There's tons of goddamn AN in here - forget fighting it! Start evacuating everybody within a mile of this place!" the people of West, Texas might have been saved a lot of grief. But because of panic, or incompetence, or cowardice, nobody did that.

And the reportage has largely skipped over that, too, leaving uninformed observers (meaning 99.5% of the U.S. public) to assume that this sort of stuff "just happens", that it was some sort of natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake and not the acts of a handful of men whose motivations remain unexamined and whose culpability will likely remain undivulged.

Update 4/25: It gets worse: "He said firefighters prepared to set up a stream of water on the tanks to keep them from overheating and rupturing, but they discovered there was no water left in the hydrants to spray." It's difficult to determine whether these hydrants - which were probably within the plant itself - were on public or private water lines, but regardless of who was supposed to maintain them it appears that they were in an unserviceable condition at the time of the explosion or were constructed so as to be vulnerable to damage FROM the explosion (not something you'd normally want in a facility planned to...um...store explosive materials.

The cause of this explosion is still being investigated; apparently four tanks filled with ammonia did not rupture, and a separate tank car loaded with AN was knocked over but also didn't explode.


  1. You are right on Chief. Adair's fertilizer plant was truly a weapon of mass destruction. It (reportedly) left a crater 93 feet in diameter and ten feet deep.

    You will never convict Adair though. It seems he is an octogenarian farmer and was an absentee owner. That plus with the church thing going for him he will never see the inside of a jail. His plant manager reportedly has worked at that plant for 50 years which makes him way way past retirement age. Did he know what he was doing? Or was he doing it the same way it was done when John Connally (or maybe Sam Houston) was Governor of Texas? Reuters has some interesting articles


    I understand they are calling ground zero a crime scene and it is being investigated by both local authorities and the ATF. Let's hope they do not get in the way of the team from the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board and thereby botch up any evidence.

    You would think that better zoning and better safety regs would come out of this disaster. But in Texas I am thinking they will go the opposite way and blame it on over-regulation.

  2. Hard to really wrap our heads around how messed up this was, and how much truly, deeply, screwed up public policy and private malfeasance it took to produce this disaster.

    Better zoning and industrial safety before the fire would have helped. But a big part of the toll was related to the fact that nobody outside the plant knew the immense quantity of AN on hand.

    Ten of the 14 killed were first responders, and the others deaths and all the injuries were directly related to failure to evacuate the area around the plant because nobody knew all that stuff was there. Even if the sonsofbitches had grabbed the first firefighter through the gate and said "There's over 200 tons of ammonium nitrate in here; you've got to start getting people out!" it might have helped some.

    But because of incompetence or negligence or just pure panic nobody did that, and now a huge circle around this place is a smoking crater.

    And I'll bet you're right; nobody associated with the ownership and management of the plant is likely to be even charged, much less convicted, because...well...FREEDOM!


  3. Table 2-1, page 8
    Ammonium Nitrate being 0.84 times as much worth as TNT in terms of peak overpressure and weight.
    Other measures claim a factor of .54

    270 tons of AN - that's not quite the same, but in the same league as this was:

    So it probably ranks in the top 10 or top 20 non-nuclear explosions ever caused by mankind.
    It's amazing that such a shitload of de facto explosives wasn't guarded, since the FBI seems to call anything that can say "bang" a "WMD" these days.

  4. The mother of all nitrate explosions was the accident at the BASF plant (Oppau) in 1921.

    Around 2500 tons of ammonium nitrate -part of 4500 tons of a mixture with sulfate- exploded and killed almost 600 people.


    Interesting for me as chemist were the likely reasons for the disaster.


  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppau_explosion



  6. Thank you for providing the correct links.


  7. What's kind of impressive (and not in a good way) is how many of these damn things have happened here in the U.S. - 10 of the 26 listed here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonium_nitrate_disasters)

    And of those 10 three were in Texas, including as close as the U.S. got to Oppau, the Texas City explosion of 1947.

    And Sven has a good point; what with all the spastic leaping about regarding Scary Muslims and their supposedly insatiable desire to blow up Americans the fact that nobody outside the company even KNEW that several hundred tons of AN was located in this plant sort of makes a mockery of all that paranoia...

    We go into a tizzy about whether we should anoint one clueless Chechen who blew up a couple of dozen square yards an "enemy" and mobilize the entire national security apparatus and yet we don't seem to even care what Mr. Adair and his people did or didn't do that resulted in leveling a huge portion of an entire little town.

  8. The USA had a huge and capital-intensive (fertilisers) agricultural sector for a long time. It's only natural that it has multiple entries in such a list.

  9. For me the more amazing thing is that there were not more really large scale bombings as agricultural stuff is relatively easy accessible and often can simply be bought without suspicion, clear advantage in comparison to other homemmade stuff is that fertilizer or herbicides are save to handle.

    In Germany you could get without any problem for many years a herbicide which was quite pure chlorate, mix this with sugar and you have a really good explosive.

    If someone worked in a coopertive market and could cook a little bit the books he would be able to acquire large amounts (tons) of stuff.


  10. I think the Texas event was a combination of "Fat, dumb and happy" with a generous sprinkling of "bubba-ism". The basic reaction of the locals was, "Who'd have ever thought?" The guy provided jobs and readily accessible materials for the local population through what had become the equivalent of an "institution". Small potatoes until........

    I would almost be willing to bet that if a "shifty looking A-rab" tried to buy 100 lbs of ammonium nitrate from the company, they'd call the police in a heartbeat, but they were oblivious to the notion that stockpiles of the stuff can be inherently dangerous. He had no "evil intentions", so how could anything in his possession cause "evil".

  11. Al: Combined, I think, with a way of thinking that is basically Gilded Age; our "betters" are Good, of course they won't do something that might endanger us. So let's not bother them with embarrassing questions about their businesses, or barge in rudely and ask them to justify what they're doing. Tug our forelocks and move on.

    I see a lot of the union-busting efforts that have gone on in the past 40-50 years as part of that. Some of it is a reaction to fat-cat unionism. But the top-driven stuff is the pushback from the folks to got knocked down after 1929 to get their old-fashioned privilege back, and part of that privilege is the "right" to do what they want where they want it, and not have any damn proles (or their damn gummint flunkies) getting all uppity...

    The thing abut this place is...it's fucking Texas, where 60 miles is a "commute". How hard would it have been to either stick this place way out in the scrubland outside of town, or to have built the TOWN the other direction? But I agree that that's where the bubba stuff comes in. A man's plot of scrub is his castle, gawddamnit, and ain't no bew-ro-crat gonna tell me what I can do with it.


  12. Back in 1960 or maybe 61 as a Pfc in a Combat Engineer unit I was often on the demolition range for training. One of the events that stand out in my mind was when me practiced with bags of commercial fertilizer rigged up with a block of C-3 which in turn were rigged with with blasting caps. Just two 50-pound bags left a huge crater. The teaching point being that a string of those would make a darn good tank barrier or trap. Another teaching point I recall was that a blasting cap alone would not have set off the fertilizer bags, a secondary explosive like C-3 or TNT or other accelerant was needed.

    As far as the West disaster goes, some speculation is blaming the Anhydrous Ammonia (NH3) tanks for acting as the accelerant and initiating the explosion. Undiluted NH3 can be explosive at high temps. Reputedly those tanks were too close to the fertilizer warehouses where the Ammonium Nitrate (AN) was stored, and the wind was blowing the flames directly towards the NH3 tanks Which therefore overheated, blew up and acted as the detonator for the warehouses full of hundreds of tons of AN. We will have to wait for the CSB report to get beyond speculation

    My first thoughts were what the h&ll were they doing with NH3? That facility is supposedly a retail outlet and not a manufacturer of fertilizer per the The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), a lobbying organization. BTW, see their mealymouthed press release here: Link to TFI press release

    So were they really just a retail outfit? Or were they using the gaseous NH3 to make AN or make NH3-salts which is also a fertilizer? Or were they selling the gaseous NH3 directly to farmers to inject into their fields as is sometimes done? That in itself seems inherently dangerous to me. To the farmer and his neighbors, consumers(?), water supply, to the earth itself! Call me chemophilic! Or maybe just an old man with Luddite tendencies.

  13. Duhhh! Of course what I meany was chemophobic instead of chemophilic. I am getting adult onset dyslexia, and my Greek was never any god beyond delta rho and sigma.

  14. One of the most difficult tasks in promoting aviation safety was getting some people to realize that an unsafe act (higher then acceptable risk level), even though it does not cause mishaps 100% of the time, is still unsafe. All it takes is for an unexpected additive factor or two and that's all she wrote. Many was the mishap investigation where the pilot offered in his defense, "But I never crashed as a result of doing it (a prohibited act) before."

    I see the same denial or ignorance in the motorcycle and motorscooter world. Mishap investigations identify rider speeding as a major contributing factor in some 40+% of all fatal mishaps, yet the majority of riders still think that "skill" can overcome the laws of physics, especially if they haven't suffered a speeding caused mishap - yet.

    I would guess the situation in West was just a progression of a variety of unsafe practices, each seemingly minor in isolation. Add to that an almost universal disdain for OSHA and similar safety agencies, and you have a toxic mix waiting for a triggering component.

    After years in Aviation Safety, I think I can understand how this came about, but what I understand is still inexcusable. It doesn't matter where the regulatory agencies were in all this, the plant operator and the town officials who allowed development so close to the plant should have know and done better.