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Director, Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter
Since some of the regulations can be easily ignored, “a lot of ammonium nitrate fertilizer operations seem to be outside the radar of the regulatory system,” Moure-Eraso warned.
The West explosion did, however, resonate at the White House. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in August in an effort to overhaul U.S. oversight of chemical safety. Trade and lobby groups formed a nonprofit called ResponsibleAg, which set up program in which state auditors inspect businesses such as fertilizer plants every three years to see if they meet federal and state regulations. Still, the industry-led program is voluntary, and there are no penalties for not correcting safety issues after inspections.
“We have a challenge in communicating the goals of the program and educating all of our stakeholders on what we’re trying to do,” says Chris Jahn, president of the Fertilizer Institute, which, along with the Agricultural Retailers Association, created the voluntary program. “As we move forward, we will be very transparent about the program and share the results with the public and make sure they understand that our goal is to keep workers and communities as safe as possible.”
Walking down Reagan Street, West Mayor Tommy Muska points out homes by naming who lives in them — his friends and constituents. The lifelong West resident and popular third-year mayor who doesn’t know a stranger jokes with the local contractors, also his friends.
He turns serious when discussing the reality of a $100 million cleanup and rebuilding effort. The destruction led the Chemical Safety Board to call the community damage in West “the worst of any chemical accident in the [board’s] history.”
“We’ve come a long way in less than a year, especially this area,” Muska says of the street, two blocks from the former plant. “This was the most devastated by the explosion. This is where the most force occurred, so all these homes were completely demolished.” The explosion that changed his town blew Muska, who was a block and a half from the site, back about six feet. He didn’t see any flames, just a big ball of smoke.
He likens the town, known for the pork and fruit kolaches at the Czech Stop off Interstate 35, to a modern Mayberry. He’s done many of these interviews in the past year, saying repeatedly that the town is not going to die on his watch. Like Connealy, Muska is confident that change is on the way in how the state handles ammonium nitrate sites. But he’s learned that the state hasn’t learned from its mistakes concerning the chemical’s storage.
“I think [the explosion] has opened up a lot of people’s eyes as to where ammonium nitrate and other chemicals are stored,” Muska said. “If there’s any benefit for the fallen firefighters and first responders that died, it would be that somebody learned a lesson and it doesn’t happen to somebody else.”
The rebuilding process is encouraging but difficult. Adair Grain, the company that oversaw the plant, only had $1 million in liability insurance, covering about 1 percent of the total property damage. Sixty-eight homes are being built from the ground up, said Muska, with 24 of them already occupied. Another 138 homes are being rebuilt.
“That explosion is not going to define these people,” he said.
mayor of West
Even with the effort to return to normality, pockets of West remain devastated.
Inside the garage of a home near where the fertilizer plant once stood, the smell of rat urine is overwhelming. Old signs, stained bed comforters, damp blankets, tattered clothes and soda cans are littered across the boarded-up ranch home with the spray-painted blue X up front. It used to be the home of Morris Bridges, a volunteer firefighter and fire sprinkler technician. When he was called in to help with the fire at the fertilizer plant, he told his infant son he loved him and told his wife, Carmen, that he’d be right back. He was 41.
On West Pecan Street, the Pustejovsky home is something of a memorial site. Two stars from Kelly and her stepson, Parker, are pinned on a tree in the front yard to honor their hero. Photos of Joey cover the home — from a collage in the bedroom hallway to a blanket on the living room recliner.
Kelly looks at the jackalope on the wall. She laughs, knowing she’ll probably never take down the ugly thing. It’s one of many memories of her husband and the love they had — and how that love could have been preserved.
“Fifteen lives could have been saved if ammonium nitrate storage was monitored anytime before the catastrophe,” Kelly said. “Looking at the circumstances and the reports that came out about how much was stored there — this tragedy could have been prevented, and I believe that with all my heart.”
Today where the fertilizer plant once stood is now a wide brown patch of land, with only some remnants of the explosion. People stop and take pictures of the site. A white cross with a tattered mini U.S. flag is covered with messages from the families of the victims. Even in faded blue ink, Kelly’s message to her husband is still clear.
I miss you and love you, Joey Pustejovsky! Can’t wait to see you again.
Love always, Kelly Pustejovsky
(Serene Fang contributed to this report. Edited by Dave Gustafson and Claire Gordon.)