May 3, 2013 — In the weeks after last month’s devastating fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, journalists from Reuters have reviewed police records that show the plant was robbed on repeated occasions. According to police reports, over the last 12 years, officers responded to 11 burglaries and 5 ammonia leaks.
Government reports indicate that the thieves were probably stealing liquid anhydrous ammonia to make methamphetamine. The most recent theft occurred in October 2012, in which thieves tampered with a tank valve. After previous thefts in the last decade, the plant manager reported that thieves were stealing four to five gallons of anhydrous ammonia every few days. On one occasion, the thieves had enough time to look at pornography on a secretary’s computer.
Despite the ongoing security breaches, West Fertilizer Company did not employ a security guard, have perimeter fences, or burglary alarms. A surveillance video camera was only installed recently.
Investigators are still investigating the cause of the initial fire before the explosion at the plant. Although there is no indication that it was caused by thieves, the area is being treated as a crime scene until proven otherwise. Thieves seeking anhydrous ammonia probably did not start the explosion — the tanks containing thousands of gallons of the chemical were shielded from the explosion by a wall, indicating that ammonium nitrate is the most likely explosive fuel.
The explosion has raised concerns about chemical thefts, arson, terrorist attacks, the safety of chemical storage facilities in the United States, lax building regulations, and workplace safety inspections. After the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, which use about two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, Congress passed a law requiring facilities that store more than 10,000 pounds of the chemical to register with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Unfortunately, West Fertilizer was never registered.
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