Texas fertilizer plant blast deemed criminal act

Reuters — A blast that killed 15 people three years ago triggered by a fire at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas was a criminal act, a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigator said Wednesday.

ATF Special Agent in Charge Rob Elder said a reward of up to US$50,000 was being offered for the person or persons responsible for starting the blaze at the West Fertilizer Co.

No arrests have been made yet, Elder told reporters, adding that investigators had eliminated accidental and natural causes.

“The only hypothesis that could not be eliminated… and was confirmed by extensive testing… is incendiary,” Elder said. “We have never stopped investigating this fire. It is our highest priority to see that the victims of this tragedy are provided an accurate explanation of what happened that day.”

If a suspect is found, that person could face capital murder charges, which can bring the death penalty.

More than 400 interviews have been conducted and more than US$2 million spent on the probe, which is still active and ongoing, Elder said. The costs included rebuilding to exact specifications portions of the plant to determine what happened.

The fire was reported on the evening of April 17, 2013, and a large explosion ripped through the plant some 22 minutes later, Elder said.

Twelve of the 15 people who died were first responders, Elder said. Many other people were injured and more than 500 homes destroyed.

“Your loss is felt by ATF,” Elder said, addressing members of the victims’ families directly. “It has been a driving factor into why we have gone to the lengths and the details that we have. These individuals were people serving their community in a volunteer capacity.”

The explosion damaged an area measuring roughly the size of 37 city blocks, Elder said, and left a crater 28 metres wide by 3.7 metres deep.

The source of the explosion was ammonium nitrate stored in a wooden container at the plant, investigators said previously.

The ammonium nitrate detonated with the force of approximately 6,800 to 9,000 kg of TNT, according to federal officials.

The blast obliterated an entire neighbourhood — including the high school and a nursing home — on the north side of the town, where the plant had been operating for more than 50 years.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said in a report this year the explosion likely happened because the owner of the facility kept combustible material near a 30-ton pile of ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer can also be used to make explosives.

The federal investigators also faulted community planning that allowed the town to grow up around the facility, exacerbating the damage.

A Reuters investigation conducted in the weeks after the explosion found that hundreds of schools, 20 hospitals, 13 churches and hundreds of thousands of households were located near ammonium nitrate storage sites across the U.S.

At least seven lawsuits had been filed against Adair Grain Inc., which owned the facility. Plaintiffs claimed negligence by the plant employees and sought millions of dollars in claims.

A partial settlement that included the families of the three killed in the explosion who were not firefighters was reached in October, but the details were not released.

Suzannah Gonzales is a Reuters correspondent based in Chicago. Additional reporting for Reuters by Jon Herskovitz and Jim Forsyth.

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