Why Didn’t Zoning Regulations Protect More Citizens from the West, Texas Explosion?

Reports of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas indicate significant loss of life and property damage. Why didn’t the zoning regulations protect more people?

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The fertilizer plant in West, Texas on April 17th, 2013 is the sixth disaster at an ammonium nitrate plant in the United States since 1921. Ammonium nitrate is a high-nitrogen fertilizer commonly used in agriculture and instant cold packs. It’s also the main component of the popular explosive ANFO. That is to say, the work and production taking place at the facility was known to be extremely hazardous.

The image above was taken days after the disaster at Texas City. The disaster has the distinction of being the deadliest industrial accident in US history and one of the largest explosions not attributed to a nuclear bomb thanks to an initial explosion of ammonium nitrate. At least 581 people were killed, 8,485 victims were affected and the first-ever class action lawsuit was filed against the US government.

The US government was able to escape liability after initially being found responsible for a series of negligent acts of omission and commission by 168 agencies. In a 4-3 decision, the US Supreme Court overturned the ruling of the lower court. It’s a fascinating case study for anyone who thinks the  US Federal government can or will always protect its citizens in a proactive fashion.

Zoning ordinances are intended to segregate incompatible property uses. That means we acknowledge there are certain types of property uses that should not be in close proximity to one another because they could be disruptive or dangerous. For example, zoning ordinances typically separate housing from industrial areas to prevent noise from machinery and other disruptions like truck traffic from effecting the residential areas.

It also makes sense to separate dangerous property uses like agricultural  and chemical facilities because they have known risks for explosions. That’s what makes the devastation in West, Texas so startling. This interactive aerial map from the Washington Post shows fertilizer plant and the buildings around it. You can clearly see ther residential property uses right across the street from the plant.

What’s more alarming is the middle school and high school buildings that are also just across the street from a known hazard. According to reports, the middle school caught fire after the blast, the city hall was significantly damaged and 75-100 houses have been destroyed.

Like most cities and counties, the zoning ordinance of West, Texas can be found on its website. The zoning ordinance is in Chapter 14 of the city’s Code of Ordinances (in the directory of folders on the left-hand side of the site). A cursory review of the ordinance shows no zoning classifications or categories to separate incompatible uses; it only distinguishes between residential and commercial property uses.

West, Texas is a town of 2,800 people. While they may not have significant resources to pay for a highly developed zoning ordinance, there are plenty of examples they could adopt. The zoning ordinances for major metropolitan areas can be hundreds of pages. Those zoning ordinances and the institutional knowledge of their zoning departments are a tremendous resource that’s often free to administrators in other cities and towns. The exchange of best practices is common.

Citizens should be more involved in zoning and planning issues for our own protection. We shouldn’t assume that our local and county governments will always be able to protect us. After all, most of the people who sit on zoning boards are citizens like us. They may know little, if anything, about zoning.

The explosion in West, Texas happened at about 7:50pm local time. Though the death toll, injuries and property damage are terrible, it would have been dramatically worse had it happened during the day when the schools were in session, the commercial buildings were occupied and there was more traffic on the streets.

Our conclusion, regardless of whether lax government oversight contributed to the explosion, is that these highly dangerous property uses must be segregated from urban areas. Since these facilities have relatively high potential for disaster, why not pay a bit more for transportation of their supplies and products in exchange for safer urban areas?

The image is courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries, UH Digital Library; taken by an unknown photographer days after the Texas City Disaster in 1947.

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