Lebanese officials blame explosion in Beirut on ammonium nitrate. Can something similar happen in US?
In in Beirut Beirut yesterday yesterday after after a a massive massive explosion explosion rocked rocked Lebanon's Lebanon's capital, capital, killing killing more more than than 100 100 injuring injuring thousands thousands leveling leveling an an entire entire neighborhood. Lebanese officials blamed the blast on more than 2700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate stored without safety measures. The same chemical fertilizer has been responsible for huge explosions here in the United States as well. And used as a bomb making components in international and domestic terrorism. So what kind of safety regulations exist in the U. S to keep something like this from happening here? Going to put that question to Joe words. He covers the environment for the center for public integrity, and he's written about this. Welcome to press play. They start having So what we saw in Lebanon has happened here in the U. S, right? I mean, maybe not on the scale of yesterday's explosion, but ammonium nitrate was linked to an explosion seven years ago in the town of West Texas, right. That's right in West Texas, 2013 you know there was a big accident there afire and triggered an explosion of 60 tons of ammonium nitrate. 15 people died. 260 people were injured, and this really just rocked the town. It destroyed Windows leveled apartments. It just looked like a tornado had ripped through the town. Before that, In 1947 There is what is considered to be the worst industrial accident in the US 581 people died. This was near Galveston, Texas. Andi was a similar situation. It was ammonium nitrate stored unsafely there that was involved in a big explosion. So this is You know, a common element of some of the worst disasters. How do you compare the one that happened yesterday? I mean, was it a similar level of of ammunition there? Well, you know, with one in West Texas, 1 2013 was an estimated 60 tons. It's early with the investigation in Beirut, but, you know, early estimates put the amount of ammonium nitrate stored there at around 3000 tons. So we're talking about a considerably more ammonium nitrate. And when we heard that first clip when you played it, I mean, you could hear that deep, concussive blast. It comes from, but it's it's It's like a detonation, and that's a real signature of these thieves. Types of explosions. It makes them wonder. I mean, what kind of federal rules exist to prevent these kinds of tragedies? You know, that's a good question. It's a patchwork of federal and state rules, including some that have been weakened in recent years. First, it's important to note that there's not a great You know, public estimate of how many of these facilities are around. The U. S Last survey done by the federal government is several years old, and it's estimated that there's 1300 of these facilities in 47 states. There's a couple layers of federal protection one through the AI. They require facilities that store this stuff to tell the government that they're storing it. Tell him how much is being stored and how it's being stored. That's supposed to be information that's available to first responders and firefighters in the area. But after the West Texas accident, Obama sent out this executive order and he really pushed his administration in the agencies to do more Teo to safeguard against these types of accidents. When President Trump's administration took over, they set about dismantling large parts of that rule. They took out some of the big elements, explaining that it was a burden to industry and the agricultural business industry pushed hard. Lobbied very hard to get those elements out of the rule. Well, it's interesting, just kind of the secretive nature of this. I mean, Ah, I also have a sense that you're kind of well acquainted with this. You're from Oklahoma. You lived in Oklahoma City for a long time. This same fertilizer was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, right? Yeah, That's right. It was used used in Timothy McVeigh's bomb. You know, 168 people died. I'm from Oklahoma City. It wasn't living in that city at the time, but you know, 90 miles away. I remember that day. Remember being pulled out of class during that day? Because you know we knew people that were, you know in the explosion. So since Del Carmen City bombing states have gotten really concerned about terrorism about domestic terrorism or criminals, getting their hands on On ammonium nitrate and so the public right to know laws or up against thes e safety concerns. What you get is really inconsistent quilt of regulations where, say in Texas this information is highly secretive state goes to right major lengths to prevent people from knowing it. If you can get that information online in other states like Nebraska and Iowa, even states like Oklahoma makes that information available. If you ask other states make it really hard or make the public go through these weird steps to get the information. What about here in California? I mean, this is a major agricultural hub. Were you able to learn anything about this issue in our state? Yeah, I requested info from California and we got a very confusing response. It wasn't clear They passed me off to other people. The information on paper is available to residents in California's They request it. It's not available in a handy Online way that many other states have it up. But I'm told the information is available if you requested it gets tricky, though, because you have to know the name and the address of the facility usually And then you have to find out where that information is stored. In most cases, that's a local fire department but usually have to call local fire departments say. Hey, I'm curious about you know this facility on The street. Can you tell me if there's anything dangerous being stored there, and in many cases, you may not know that stuff's being stored there. It's easier to think of like a like an oil refinery right or some big complex that Obviously looks like you know, it would be a problem is there was a disaster there, but the West, you know, Texas accident. This just happened in a random looking shed in the middle of a field. You would have no indication driving by this thing that it was storing. No. 60 tons of highly explosive chemical. We'll. Finally How does all this uneven regulation and lack of transparency put people at risk? You know, first responders and firefighters in West Texas and safety advocates have really you know, raised alarms about this after West Texas and then as some of the slightly tougher rules got weakened. In subsequent administrations, they say, you know, it's it's not clear that more could be done, Teo prevent these types of accidents and increase oversight and safety, You know, both from Public knowing what kind of risks air there from first responders and firefighters. That was something that came out the West Texas accident was firefighters that responded didn't really know the full extent of what was being stored there. So people are concerned about this and continue to raise red flags. Joe