Families of Three Firefighters Agree on Settlement for 2013 Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion
The families of three firefighters who were killed in the April 17th, 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in McClennan County, Texas agreed to an undisclosed settlement on Sunday. The blast at the West Fertilizer plant killed 15 people altogether, injured 170, damaged nearby buildings and over 150 homes in the city of West, obliterating the plant, and even caused the equivalent of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.
With jury selection set to begin on Monday, authorities for the county told hundreds of prospective jurors on Sunday evening that they would not be needed for the trial involving the plant’s ownership and suppliers and the families of the deceased; Kevin Sanders, William Uptmor and Kenneth Harris. Waco District Court Judge Jim Meyer had divided the litigation regarding the explosion into three separate lawsuits, with the aforementioned case serving as a potential bellwether for the other two cases, which will contain hundreds of plaintiffs. The next trial regarding the blast is slated to begin in the fall of 2016.
The plaintiffs are suing Adair Grain Company, the owner of West Fertilizer, as well as other fertilizer suppliers for selling the plant combustible chemicals. Most of a 30-ton shipment of ammonium nitrate (yes, the same compound that Takata uses for its airbag propellant) in the plant’s mixing plant was heated to the point of combustion, leading to the massive explosion. Along with the 150 houses destroyed, the blast severely damaged a high school and middle school, as well as a nursing home and apartment complex.
In addition to the victims and their families, the city of West and the owners of the nursing home and apartment complex have also joined in the wave of lawsuits. The addition of the suppliers as co-defendants largely stems from the fact that West Fertilizer only carried a $1 million liability policy. Estimates of the total damage caused by the disaster have exceeded $200 million.
According to its most recent filing with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in late 2012, the company stored over 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate at the site and over 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. While disclosing the data to the EPA, the company failed to notify the Department of Homeland Security of its stockpile. Federal law mandates companies that store more than 2000 pounds of ammonium nitrate to report the amount to the department.
The blast left a 90-foot wide and 10-foot deep crater where the plant used to exist. Despite an investigation by Texas fire marshals and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which determined that the combustion of the chemicals was the cause of the explosion, they were unable to determine the root cause of the fire. A year after the blast following an intensive investigation, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concluded, “The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred.
It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.” Although four bills were introduced in the Texas legislature in the past year, they have been tabled in the largely regulation-averse state.