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Texas Fertilizer Blast Spurs Sheriff’s Criminal Probe

Fertilizer Plant Blast in Texas Spurs Sheriff Criminal Probe
Searchers in protective suits walk through the blast zone of the fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas, on April 18, 2013. Photographer: Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT Via Getty Images

Texas law enforcement officials have opened a criminal investigation into the April 17 fertilizer-plant explosion in the town of West that killed more than a dozen people and leveled nearby structures.

The probe is being led by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department with assistance from the Texas Rangers, according to a statement by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“This disaster has severely impacted the community of West, and we want to ensure that no stone goes unturned and that all the facts related to this incident are uncovered,” Steven McCraw, director of Texas DPS, said in the statement.

At least 14 individuals, many of them first responders, were killed when the West Fertilizer Plant exploded last month. The blast injured more than 200 people and destroyed in excess of 70 homes and businesses across a five-block area.

“The citizens of McLennan County and Texas must have confidence that this incident has been looked at from every angle and professionally handled -- they deserve nothing less,” McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said in the joint statement.

Investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board haven’t released results of their probe into what caused the explosion, which followed a fire at the plant earlier that evening. The facility stored 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer, according to a yearend report by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Ammonium Nitrate

Ammonium nitrate can be highly explosive. The substance has been linked to terrorist bombings, including the 1995 blast that killed 168 people and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Officials with the Texas Fire Marshal’s office and the Texas Insurance Department said the civil investigation, which is being conducted in coordination with the Chemical Safety Board probe, may not be completed until May 24, later than officials initially forecast. Dozens of investigators have interviewed at least 400 individuals and continue combing the site, which includes a blast crater 93 feet (28 meters) wide by 10 feet deep.

While investigators haven’t determined the cause of the initial fire, they have ruled out bad weather, anhydrous ammonium, which is also stored at the plant, and a rail car containing ammonium nitrate, Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Texas Fire Marshal’s office, said last week.

Family Business

At least 35 individuals and businesses harmed by the blast have sued Adair Grain Inc., the family business that owns the fertilizer plant. The suits seek damages for destroyed property as well as physical and emotional injuries from the blast, which the victims claim resulted from safety negligence.

Randy Roberts, a lawyer for several victims, said he had “serious doubts” that Donald and Wanda Adair, the plant’s owners, have enough personal or corporate assets to cover all the blast damage, which has been estimated at more than $100 million.

“There’s not any sprawling corporate network behind Adair Grain,” Roberts said. “I’d be surprised if there is enough.”

Paul Grinke, another lawyer for blast victims, said his research found the Adairs carried just $1 million in primary insurance, with no umbrella policy or excess coverage.

“This was a mom-and-pop shop,” Grinke said.

Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for the plant owners, declined in e-mails to comment on either pending litigation or emergency management plans at the facility.

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