May 30, 2013 9:51:05 AM
WASHINGTON -- Until the local fertilizer company in West, Texas, blew up last month and demolished scores of homes, many in that town of 2,800 didn't know what chemicals were stored alongside the railroad tracks or how dangerous they were. Even rescue workers didn't know what they were up against.
"We never thought of an explosive potential," said Dr. George Smith, the EMS director who responded to the factory fire by running to a nearby nursing home to prepare for a possible chemical spill.
Firefighters feared that tanks of liquid ammonia would rupture. But while they hosed down those tanks to keep them cool, a different chemical -- a few tons of ammonium nitrate -- exploded with the force of a small earthquake.
Smith and his colleagues should have known that ammonium nitrate was also a significant hazard. Neighbors should have known, too.
Around the country, hundreds of buildings like the one in West store some type of ammonium nitrate. They sit in quiet fields and by riverside docks, in business districts and around the corner from schools, hospitals and day care centers.
By law, this shouldn't be a mystery. Yet fears of terrorism have made it harder than ever for homeowners to find out what dangerous chemicals are hidden nearby. Poor communication can also keep rescue workers in the dark about the risks they face.
And some records are so shoddy that rescuers could not rely on them to help save lives.
That reality is reflected in a monthlong effort by The Associated Press to compile public records on hazardous chemicals stored across America. Drawing upon data from 28 states, the AP found more than 120 facilities within a potentially devastating blast zone of schoolchildren, the elderly and the infirm.
At least 60 facilities reported to state regulators as having about as much or more ammonium nitrate than the 540,000 pounds West Fertilizer Co. said it had at some point last year. The AP contacted 20 of the facilities individually to confirm the information, and three companies disputed the records. Some of the facilities stored the chemical in solid form, which is among the most dangerous.
Exactly how many other facilities exist nationwide is a mystery.
Ammonium nitrate is an important industrial fertilizer and mining explosive that, stored correctly, is stable and safe.
The Monroe County Co-Op in Aberdeen stored as much as 1 million pounds last year, according to state records. But David Hodges, the store manager, said he had about half that on site and has sold it for about 50 years without a problem.
"I've been here, oh, 34, 35 years, and it's always been there," said Larry Middleton, a retired English teacher who lives up the street and visits to buy weed remover and snake repellent.
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