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.
Thefts diminished when owners Donald and Wanda Adair took over the company and installed security cameras.
"I think he went to a lot of expense to curtail what was going on down there," Kubala said in an interview.
Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for Adair, declined to comment on the police reports. "Those are all issues that are currently being investigated, and we are referring questions to the investigating authorities," he said.
The reports of break-ins underscore the need for greater government oversight, said Tom Smith, the head of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates for more regulation of hazardous industries.
This "adds a whole new level of complexity," Smith said in an interview, referring to the news of the burglaries. At the state level, "nobody is sitting down and trying to safeguard these toxins or explosives."
State fire examiners say they plan to issue a report on the incident by May 10.
"We are following up on all leads, but because this is an active investigation, we cannot comment on the details or outcome of any of the leads," Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Texas Fire Marshal, said by e-mail. The anhydrous ammonia tanks weren’t part of the fire or explosion, she said.
State agriculture and law enforcement agencies have warned for more than a decade that fertilizer depots and farms can be sources of anhydrous ammonia -- a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen that farmers inject in liquid form into the soil as a crop nutrient -- for makers of illegal drugs. The plant stored as much as 110,000 pounds (50,000 kilograms) of the chemical, according to the state Health Services Department.
"While there are several ways to manufacture methamphetamine, one of the most popular ‘recipes’ features anhydrous ammonia as a key ingredient," according to the Illinois attorney general’s website. "Most meth manufacturers reside in rural areas to avoid easy detection by police and neighbors, and use the resources that are readily available to them. These ‘resources’ often include anhydrous ammonia."
In 2006 the Fertilizer Institute established a "Meth Task Force," which developed voluntary industry measures designed to curb the theft and use of the liquid ammonia in making the drug, also known as speed, both by including chemical additives and introducing anti-tampering equipment on tanks.
--Editors: Ted Bunker, Michael Shepard
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