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Texas town’s blast crater shows risk from patchwork zoning laws

With two schools near a plant storing ammonium nitrate – the fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing – West, Texas, Superintendent Marty Crawford said he had always worried about an explosion like the one last week.

“We crossed our fingers that that could never happen,” Crawford told reporters a day after the April 17 blast killed 14 people, wrecked two schools, destroyed a nursing home and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

Crawford’s dilemma is echoed nationwide where land use near plants handling dangerous chemicals is controlled by a patchwork of federal and state regulations and zoning laws that are often more attuned to property owners’ rights than those who live and work near industrial sites.

Though only 2,800 people live in West, a rural town 80 miles south of Dallas, millions of people nationwide live and work near high-risk chemical plants, according to a report this year based on Congressional Research Service data. The report said 89 chemical facilities put more than 1 million nearby residents at risk, including 33 in Texas.

Following the explosion in West, which also injured 200 people and flattened 50 homes, thousands of similar fertilizer centers across the United States will get more scrutiny of hazardous chemicals from local residents and government officials, said Chris Damas, an independent fertilizer analyst with Ontario-based BCMI Research.

“It looks like regulators dropped the ball,” said Damas. “People may forget this terrible accident and necessary improvements in fertilizer storage regulation won’t happen.”

Texas environmental groups, including Public Citizen Texas and Texas Campaign for the Environment, said in a statement Wednesday that state lawmakers should pass tougher regulation and step up enforcement, including more inspections and disclosure of toxic threats.

Any increase in scrutiny would come as the fertilizer industry plans $22 billion of new projects and expansions in Texas and elsewhere in North America.

Cities have grown up around manufacturing all over the country, said Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who questioned whether it would be cost-effective to move plants or residential areas away from each other. West expanded out into the rural area where the fertilizer plant was already established.

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