‘We don’t seem to learn’: Beirut explosion echoes US tragedy
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The staggering videos from the Lebanese capital are grimly familiar to Tommy Muska thousands of miles away in Texas: a towering blast, a thundering explosion and shock waves demolishing buildings with horrifying speed.
It is what the mayor of West, Texas, lived seven years ago when one of the deadliest fertilizer plant explosions in U.S. history partly leveled his rural town. On Wednesday, Muska also couldn’t shake a familiar feeling — that yet again, no lessons will be learned.
“I don’t know what people were thinking about storing that stuff,” Muska told The Associated Press. He was a volunteer firefighter at the time of the West explosion.
The 2013 disaster at the West Fertilizer Co. was a fraction of the size of Tuesday’s explosion at Beirut’s port that authorities say killed least 135 people and wounded about 5,000. Both blasts involved massive stockpiles of ammonium nitrate, a common but highly explosive chemical, and swift allegations that negligence and weak government oversight were to blame.
Few significant crackdowns on chemical storage came in the wake of the West explosion, which killed 15 people. President Donald Trump scaled back industrial safety and disaster regulations enacted in direct response to the tragedy in Texas.
With a government mired in factional fighting and corruption, Lebanon offers an extreme example of what was once a bustling business economy operating now under little dependable regulation and enforcement.
The investigation is focusing on how a reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the facility for six years and why nothing was done about it. The chemical had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013. On Tuesday it is believed to have detonated when a fire started nearby.
In Texas, authorities suspected arson but no arrests have been made. The West explosion had the force of a small earthquake. It flattened homes in a five-block radius and destroyed a nursing home where residents, some in wheelchairs, were trapped in rubble. Ten of those killed in the blast were firefighters or first responders.
“We don’t seem to learn that chemical is deadly,” Muska said. “I feel for those people in Beirut, I surely do. It brought back a lot of memories.”
Last year, the Trump administration scaled back chemical safety measures that included ending a requirement that plants provide members of the public information about chemical risks upon request. Chemical manufacturers had pushed for the changes.
The Obama-era Chemical Disaster Rule is one of several rules or proposals meant to lessen the risks of major, possibly high-casualty industrial disasters that have been weakened under Trump. Others include stripping a Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposed rule that would have required nuclear plants to greatly harden their facilities against the kind of natural disasters that struck the plant in Fukushima, Japan.
Other steps cut proposed safety requirements for offshore rigs after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and allowed shipment of liquefied natural gas by rail despite criticism from several states, firefighters and the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which has trimmed scores of environmental and public health protections that the Trump administration sees as unfriendly to business, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the rollback.
At the time, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the weakening of the proposed Chemical Disaster Rule would save $88 million a year in compliance costs. Wheeler said the administration’s move “addresses emergency responders’ longstanding concerns and maintains important public safety measures” while saving money.
Elena Craft, a Texas-based senior director with the Environmental Defense Fund environmental group, cited the Chemical Disaster Rule among a series of other proposals weakening protections for the communities — often lower-income, and disproportionately Black or Hispanic — living around dangerous industrial sites.
Even the West, Texas, disaster, with its toll on first responders, failed to change the regulatory picture much after the headlines faded away, Craft said. “It’s always been sort of the constant story … it gets to be accepted business in Texas.”
In 1989, Juan Flores was in sixth grade when an explosion at a Phillips 66 plastics plant near his Galena Park, Texas, community outside Houston killed 23. The blast shook Flores’ school and blew out windows.
That area bordering Houston’s Shipping Channel is the nation’s hub for oil and gas and petrochemicals. Yet Houston’s lack of zoning means residents’ yards in poorer and minority neighborhoods butt up against looming chemical and petroleum storage tanks or booming industrial sites working with hazardous materials.
Six major chemical explosions have rocked the Houston area since March 2019 alone. One, an explosion at a chemical tank, prompted widespread shelter-in-place orders for residents and sent a mile-high plume of smoke over the city for days. A more recent chemical blast, in January, killed three people and damaged more than 450 surrounding buildings.
“To see that happen” in Beirut, it was the worst-case scenario for already worried people in his community, said Flores, a community activist and former Galena Park mayor. “There’s one or two plants here, if they ever go, there’s a chance we could wind up in that situation.”
In West, street images on Google Maps still show crumbled buildings that were taken shortly after the blast that shook the town of only 3,000 people. “They’ve never come back with their little car,” Muska said of Google.
Ammonium nitrate isn’t stored in the town any longer. “It’s got it’s useful places in the farming community,” Muska said. “But it’s also, like we just saw yesterday, it can just be devastating.”
Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City.