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West, Texas, Rebuilds
Thursday, April 17, 2014 7:14AM CDT

By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) -- West, Texas, Mayor Tommy Muska knows he has a fine line to walk.

His community is still recovering from a devastating explosion of a fertilizer plant a year ago. For people in his city to readily accept a possible fertilizer supplier building a new facility there, officials know they'll need to approach the idea with extreme caution.

Farmers require fertilizer. At the beginning of this year's planting season, many farmers are traveling 15 to 20 miles to Hillsboro and Hubbard for ammonium nitrate and other supplies, the mayor said. City officials are in discussions with another company to replace West Fertilizer Co. to meet the farmers' needs.

"It's going to be a very slow process," he said. "The people here are very leery. But it is an important aspect of the town and our area. We have opened up the door with a possibility that with the right construction and guidelines, to have another fertilizer company in this area."

A new location could sit safely away from residential or other populated areas, with the potential for extending city limits to take advantage of sales tax revenues, he added.

While no new fertilizer plant has emerged yet, the community is making progress to rebuild and move past the tragic explosion that killed 15 firefighters and other first-responders, and injured hundreds of residents.

The town is well on its way to rebuilding its north side: 68 new homes have been built, 138 have finished some level of rebuild and 24 homes in the area again are occupied. A new 75,000-square-foot nursing home is under construction after the previous home was destroyed in the blast, and should be completed by the summer of 2015, Muska said.

"We lost 134 residents who are no longer in West," Muska said. "Folks who were in the nursing home are scattered throughout the area. Hopefully within a year they will come back."

In addition, work has started on a new $20 million junior/senior high school, as area students continue to use temporary facilities. The city continues to work out the details with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Texas on millions more in funds to complete streets, water and other infrastructure projects.

"We lost $20 million in property tax and we can't borrow money now," Muska said, as the city's bond rating took a hit following the disaster. Wages were frozen, and the city delayed equipment purchases and other needs for two years running.

Despite the loss in property tax revenues, Muska said the city saw an 11% increase in sales tax revenues. The city also expects to see more help from the state's rainy-day fund.

One area was critical to invest in again: the ability to fight future emergencies. Five volunteer firefighters were lost from the West department. Muska said five new recruits and new equipment are helping the department rebound.

INVESTIGATION CONTINUES

Investigators continue to leave open the possibility that criminal activity could have led to the fire and resulting ammonium nitrate explosion in the fertilizer plant a year ago.

Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, who is heading the investigation, told DTN he continues to focus on three things: a potentially faulty 120-volt electrical system on the property, a golf cart that could have accidently caught fire, or that the fire was intentionally started.

"It's still an active investigation," he stressed. "There has been a lot of information gathered."

So far, the investigation found a fire started in a room that contained seed and other materials onsite, and continued to build and traveled to wood-framed bins storing AN.

Heat from the blaze started to decompose ammonium nitrate and built up pressure, Connealy said. A first explosion occurred when the roof of the bins collapsed, "creating a shock" that led to the second, fatal blast.

The Texas Fire Marshal's office continues to work with experts at a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives laboratory in Maryland to make a final determination on the cause of the fire, he said.

While the investigation is ongoing, he said his department is slated to release a final report in May that outlines the actions taken by volunteer firefighters and others in West, and to give firefighters across the state intelligence on what could be done to combat similar fires.

"Next month we'll meet with the families of the victims and the fire chief before the report is released," Connealy said.


Editor's Note: To see complete DTN coverage of the West, Texas explosion aftermath, please see the DTN/The Progressive Farmer In-depth site at http://www.dtn.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow Todd Neeley on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

(ES/AG/SK)


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