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April 18, 2013

Look for the helpers in chemical explosions

by: Anne McGinness Kearse

The devastating chemical explosion that occurred last night in West, Tex., at Adair Grain’s DBA West Fertilizer Company plant reminds me of not only the importance of workplace safety but also the tremendous gratitude we owe to first responders such as our communities’ firefighters.

According to reports, officials are treating the explosion in Texas as a crime scene until they have secured more details. The Texas Department of Public Safety stated that the explosion leveled several blocks around the plant and even registered as a 2.1.magnitude seismic event. Dozens of homes, a large apartment complex, a middle school and the West Rest Haven Nursing Home were seriously damaged. The total injury and potential fatality toll is still unknown, and several firefighters are among those still unaccounted for, including volunteers from the West Volunteer Fire Department.

The EPA reportedly fined the West plant in 2006, after receipt of a complaint citing a strong ammonia smell, for failing to have a risk management plan meeting federal standards and for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit. According to Bloomberg reports, the plant stored thousands of pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a liquid form of fertilizer nitrogen that helps crop yields, and that a fire had broken out at the plant an estimated 25 minutes before the explosion. The Huffington Post reported that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is deploying an investigation team to the plant and that the ATF is also arriving at the scene with fire investigators, certified explosives specialists, chemists, canines and forensic specialists.

The cause of Wednesday night's explosion remains under investigation, but I am reminded of similar tragedies that were caused by the alleged failure of corporations and property owners to operate safely and maintain safe environments for their workers and the communities in which they were located. In early 2005, the Graniteville, S.C., train disaster caused a deadly chlorine spill that damaged the community. In 2007, the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, S.C., took the lives of nine firefighters. In 2008, there was a tragic fire at the Imperial Sugar Co.’s Port Wentworth refinery. In 2009, there was an explosion at the ConAgra Foods plant in Garner, N.C. And, of course, who can forget the explosion on April 20, 2010, involving the Deepwater Horizon, which led to the loss of life, devastated the environment and impacted thousands of area people and businesses. These are just some among the many tragedies that have harmed families and communities—and the people who risk their lives every day to protect them.

My colleagues and I have had the honor and privilege to sit side-by-side with victims of catastrophic incidents, as well as the families of people who have lost loved ones in tragedies such as the one that occurred last night— the widows of the firefighters who perished in the Sofa Super Store fire, for example. As Mr. Rogers always said, “Look for the helpers. You'll always find people who are helping.” This statement could never be more true than it is this week in the aftermath of both the Texas explosion and the Boston Marathon bombing. I thank the many first responders and other everyday heroes who selflessly risk their lives coming to the need of others when disaster strikes, not knowing what lies ahead.

My thoughts remain with the victims of this tragedy and their families.