May 4 (Bloomberg) -- Intruders repeatedly broke into the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that exploded last month, revealing what critics called a pattern of inadequate security.
Many thieves in the past decade were believed to target containers of anhydrous ammonia, which can be used to make the drug methamphetamine, said Matt Cawthon, chief deputy for the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office. A plant manager in 2002 said ammonia tanks were tapped for as much as five gallons (19 liters) of the liquid every three days, according to a police report.
Since 2002, the records show 11 reports of burglaries, theft or criminal trespassing. Deputies responded to at least 10 reports of leaks, odors or suspicious vehicles at the plant between 2006 and 2012, according to police call logs.
"It’s hard to say what measures they were taking, but clearly the number of reported instances of burglary is alarming," Sam Mannan, who teaches chemical engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station, said in an interview. "Probably their measures were not up to snuff."‘
A fire broke out at the Adair Grain Inc. facility at about 7:30 p.m. on April 17. The plant exploded a short time later, leaving a crater 93 feet (28 meters) wide by 10 feet deep. The disaster has fueled a national debate over the adequacy of chemical-safety laws and regulations. The processor hadn’t been inspected by federal workplace regulators in more than 27 years.
While investigators haven’t said what caused the blast, the plant was approved to store 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which is explosive. It is linked to some of the deadliest industrial accidents and terrorist attacks, including the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in which 168 people died.
The McLennan County sheriff’s office provided incident reports and police communication logs about the West plant in response to a Texas Public Information Act request. The city of West is in the county.
The facility was often open after hours, as farmers frequently need access to fertilizer and would pick up loads informally, said Ken Kubala, a former West city secretary. That attracted not only ammonia thieves but vandals and petty burglars, including one who watched pornography on an office computer and another who stole a box of Oreo cookies, according to the sheriff’s incident report.
Deputies found a leaking tank of anhydrous ammonia at the plant as recently as Oct. 15, after a resident reported an ammonia smell "so strong it can burn your eyes." The plant manager turned off the tank and told deputies a valve had been tampered with, according to a police call log.