When stored properly, fertilizer is considered safe. Yet, as the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building showed, it can also be highly combustible when in the wrong hands. That makes reports of insufficient oversight, regulatory gridlock, and incomplete disclosures leading up to the explosion last week at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, all the more disturbing.
Right now the blast — which killed at least 14 people, injured some 200 others, and razed several buildings — appears to have been a horrible industrial accident. Still, the plant, West Fertilizer, had not erected appropriate safeguards, such as blast walls, that could have mitigated the damage. Nor had the facility been fully inspected since 2006 by any of the seven state and federal agencies charged with overseeing it. Regulators relied instead on self-reporting, a practice necessitated by limited budgets but that may put too much faith in the firms handling the hazardous chemicals used to make fertilizer.