What's next for West, Texas?
The small town outside Waco was largely leveled by a massive fertilizer plant explosion. Can it rebuild?
Residents of West, Texas, knew that building schools, a nursing home, and houses and apartments next to the West Fertilizer Co. plant was a bad idea, says Christine Pelisek at The Daily Beast. For years before the massive explosion at about 8 p.m. on April 16, "many residents of this small traditional Czech community felt as if they were living next to a ticking time bomb."
The fertilizer depot — which custom-mixed fertilizers for local farmers as well as selling them grain, feed, and tools — was built in 1962, when its parcel of land was out in the country. Over time, "they extended the town out," long-time resident Joe Kotch, 71, tells The Daily Beast. "It was always a bad idea to build around it, but no one thought it would ever happen.... I've been here for 50 years, and nothing has happened."
On Friday, the close-knit community started mourning the 14 people killed in the Wednesday night blast. Most of the dead were volunteer medics and firefighters. On Saturday, authorities started allowing people who live near the site of the explosion to return to their homes for a short visit. West Mayor Tommy Muska is optimistic. "We're going to fight back just like we always do," he told NBC's Matt Lauer on Friday. "We're going to get these houses rebuilt. This is a wonderful community. We're going to get everything back to order one of these days."
But 14 deaths and 50 destroyed homes in a town of 2,700 is a big loss, and it's also plausible to see West reduced to little more than the famous "Czech Stop" kolache bakery and gas station right off I-35. (Kolaches are stuffed pastries.) Mandy Williams, 27, says the damage to her house is bad, but nothing compared to the homes a few blocks closer to the plant. "I really worry about [those homeowners] and then this town when everybody sees it," she tells the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "A lot of those homes are gone."
The damage is "far worse than what you've seen on TV," resident Tom Juntunen, who lived eight blocks from the blast, tells the Star-Telegram. "The pictures out there don't do it justice." Juntunen, 33, says he probably won't stick around to live through the boiling-water requirements and limited gas and electricity.
The town's religious leaders are hardly more optimistic. "They're going through the stages of grief," Father Ed Karasek of St. Mary's Assumption Catholic Church in West — which drew a crowd of 1,400 on Friday — told NBC. "Reality is going to set in. The anger, the depression — it's going to be hard to sleep. They have to recover and support one another.''
"When the media goes away and the attention goes away, don't forget us," adds Rev. John Crowder at West's First Baptist Church. "Keep praying for us, because this is going to be a long, long process."
But West will rebuild, says West native Zac Crain at NBC News. "The town is tiny — around 2,500 people, but it feels like fewer — and its roots are long and strong." Everybody knows one another, most people have Czech surnames, and doors are often left unlocked. "It's the kind of place not many leave, and those who do often come back." And West is important for people who didn't grow up there, too.
It's not a huge stretch to say that everyone in Texas knows about West, Texas. Or, at the very least, they know about Czech Stop.... They know to stop and order a box of kolaches, the sometimes sweet, sometimes savory, and always delicious Czech pastries. If West is the unofficial Kolache Capitol of Texas, Czech Stop — to be fair, not even the best bakery in town — is its statehouse.
Willie Nelson grew up a few miles down 35, in Abbott. He had his first paying gig in West at the Nite Owl bar.... It may sound strange, since West has never had more than 3,000 residents, but for places like Abbott — and Penelope, Tours, Leroy, Tokio, Ross, and a handful of other pinpricks on the map — West is the big city. Until a few years ago, West had only one stoplight, and it was a flashing red. [NBC News]
Besides, West isn't "a factory town," Crain adds. "The fertilizer plant is not the No. 1 job source in West.... People have jobs. Some are in West, some are in Waco."
Regardless, West Fertilizer could very well rebuild, says local historian Mimi Montgomery Irwin. "We are on the hub of a farm region," she tells The Daily Beast. "You need a business like that to support the farming. Maybe they will be smarter about it now, but the business entity itself is needed."
If the fertilizer company — owned by local resident Donald Adair since 2004 — does rebuild, it probably will do so farther out in the country. That could lessen the damages if another accident occurs. But West Fertilizer had some pretty egregious problems: In 2012 it held 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, 100 times the weight of the amount Timothy McVeigh used to bomb the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and 1,350 times the amount that would normally require Department of Homeland Security oversight — if the owners had informed DHS of their ammonium nitrate stash. Still, the town's situation isn't all that unique, say Reuters' Joshua Schneyer, Ryan McNeill, and Janet Roberts:
Wednesday's blast heightens concerns that regulations governing ammonium nitrate and other chemicals — present in at least 6,000 depots and plants in farming states across the country — are insufficient. The facilities serve farmers in rural areas that typically lack stringent land zoning controls, many of the facilities sit near residential areas. [Reuters]
To prevent another incident like what happened last week — in West or elsewhere — chemical plants simply need to be made safer, by hook or crook, says Bloomberg News in an editorial. Under federal rules enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, chemical plants are required to alert their communities of the risks they pose — West did, but vastly undersold the risks — and tell the EPA how they're working to reduce the risk of catastrophe. "The problem is that plants aren't sufficiently compelled to eliminate that potential in the first place," and so far neither Congress nor the Bush or Obama administrations have upped the pressure.
What's frustrating is that there are cost-effective ways to improve safety. Utilities have stopped using dangerous chlorine gas to sterilize water and started using ultraviolet light instead. Bleach makers have reduced their need to move huge quantities of chlorine gas by train by spreading production among smaller centers. Although many of the bigger chemical companies have initiated these changes, hundreds of smaller ones, such as the West Fertilizer Co., require government urging. [Bloomberg]