Occam’s razor is a principle stating that an explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct. By contrast, the report issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about the fire preceding the April 2013 explosion in West, TX, asks us to accept assumption in lieu of evidence.
A $2 million investigation by the ATF and other agencies ruled out all accidental or natural causes for the fire at West Fertilizer Co. The fire that detonated 30 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, killing 15 people and injuring more than 200, was “incendiary, a criminal act,” the ATF charges.
At least that is the assumption. It is the only hypothesis that investigators could not eliminate. Yet nobody has been charged with a crime. Can you even call it an alleged crime if there is no evidence other than the investigator’s supposition?
Taking the infallibility of the ATF on faith about something as horrific as the West explosion seems unfair to the community. These people are still trying to stitch their lives back together. Along comes the feds not to alleviate their fears but foster nagging doubts and dread based on nothing more substantial than process of elimination.
If no chance of prosecution exists, why even promote the theory of potential foul play? Does West need its own private “grassy knoll” to debate ceaselessly about for the next half century?
I wonder if the ATF is sending mixed messages about the safety and reliability of ammonium nitrate. In April 2014, I spoke at a public meeting held in West by the Chemical Safety Board to release its preliminary report about the disaster.
I want the government or industry to do some research because I want to know why at West we had one building full of ammonium nitrate explode and kill a bunch of people, yet we had another one catch fire not that far away that did not.
That other fire was in Bryan, TX, in July 2009. A fertilizer facility burned to the ground without detonating nearly 550 tons of ammonium nitrate stored there.
Glen P. Corbett, an associate professor of fire sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told CSB board members that the handling of ammonium nitrate tends to be a “bi-polar issue.
“On one hand we think of it as this innocuous fertilizer and, on the other hand, we think of it as an explosive,” Corbett said. “The (fire) code reflects that sort of ambiguity.” Little research exists on ammonium nitrate in its working “habitat,” such as storage or handling, he said.
The ATF’s certainty in eliminating “accident or natural causes” seems even stranger when ammonium nitrate lies at the heart of a quite different federal investigation. Faulty auto air bags, some of which have exploded upon deployment, have caused more than 100 injuries and at least 11 deaths.
Independent studies and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have reported that high humidity and high temperatures puts drivers at a significantly greater risk from airbag mishaps. Both affect the stability of the ammonium nitrate used as a chemical inflator in airbags.
The NHTSA recently told the New York Times that “long-term exposure to environmental moisture and wide temperature fluctuations over time can degrade the propellant used to deploy the airbag, making it unstable and prone to unexpectedly explode.”
ATF and NHTSA seem to be working at cross purposes. But even more worrying is the ATF’s assumption that if it cannot figure out what caused the fire and explosion then it must be skullduggery, not a flawed investigation.
When it comes to distorted logic in a federal probe, the April 1989 explosion aboard the USS Iowa is must reading. The blast tore apart a World War II-era 16-inch gun, killing 47 crew members present in the gun turret. The Navy blamed it on sabotage by a suicidal sailor who used a detonator to trigger the blast.
However, an exhaustive investigation by the Sandia National Laboratories found no evidence of such a detonator. It blamed the explosion on an accidental “overram” of explosive powder bags loaded into the gun during a firing exercise. Unauthorized experiments using “supercharged” powder bags and specially designed shells had been reported aboard ship.
The problem is that once investigators commit themselves to paper, it becomes hard to shift opinions. Naval officials disagreed with the Sandia findings. The closest the Navy came to common ground was to rule that the cause of the explosion could never be determined.
Hopefully, more research will be done on the stability of ammonium nitrate when stored, shipped or, particularly, when burning. Facts, not assumptions, are needed. After that, maybe the ATF will be open to reconsidering its verdict on the West disaster.