There are still unanswered questions about the recent fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas that killed 15 people and injured over 200. From what we do know, it seems that three key ingredients contributed to the tragedy.
First, lax regulation and oversight: the plant had not been inspected by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration since 1985 and had operated for two years without necessary air permits. Second, the inherent risks of a dangerous industrial process: there were 270 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate on site. Third, the close proximity of people: schools, homes, and an apartment complex were just blocks away from the plant.
The scary thing for Denton is that all of these ingredients are falling into place when it comes to natural gas drilling and fracking. We need to take steps now to prevent a similar disaster here.
First, consider the ingredients. Lax regulation and oversight? Check. Oil and gas well inspections by the Texas Railroad Commission have actually been decreasing even as the number of producing wells has skyrocketed in recent years.
Inherent risks? Check. Just last week, EagleRidge lost control of a well off of Jim Christal Road not far from Denton Presbyterian Hospital. An incident report estimates the event released 59 lbs. of carcinogenic benzene into the air, but a home video suggests that figure is a gross underestimation. This is being called a ‘leak’ but it looks much more like a blow-out. Accidents will happen, either as a result of operator negligence or as a ‘normal’ feature of complex technological systems.
Proximity of people? Check. There are wells in town (like the one near Bonnie Brae and Panhandle) that are very close to homes and parks. City Council voted in January to increase the setback distance between wells and protected uses to 1,200 feet. But, due to vested rights, this new ordinance will not have much of an impact. Indeed, days after the EagleRidge ‘leak,’ Denton’s Planning & Zoning Commission approved a development plan off of Teasley Lane that will put homes just 100 feet from two gas wells.
And this is not an isolated incident. Most future drilling activity in Denton will occur under old rules with minimal protection standards for neighboring homes. On top of this, when homes are built around pre-existing wells, Denton’s ordinance allows a variance to be granted that can reduce the setback distance to 250 feet. The rationale for this is ‘buyers beware’ – prospective homebuyers are able to make an informed choice, because the well is already there. But of course, conditions are not ripe for a truly informed decision here. Realtors are often not knowledgeable on the subject. And developers barely disclose information about the risks posed by gas wells. Why would they, when it can mean millions in lost revenue?
The fertilizer plant in West was built in 1962 when it was surrounded by open farmland. But a boom of development brought homes and schools nearby. The same is going to happen in Denton as wells are developed in master planned communities such as Robson Ranch and homes come in later. There are stories from West of a creeping complacency about the fertilizer plant: it’s been here for so long, it’s not risky. A former City Council member admitted development decisions in West were pretty much on auto-pilot, saying of the potential threat posed by the plant “There was never any thought about it. Maybe that was wrong.”
We need to be vigilant and avoid this kind of thoughtlessness. Denton is currently revising its comprehensive plan, which opens a forum for thinking about this issue. Here, then, is a question we should think long and hard about: Do we want to live in a city that puts people close to hazardous industrial sites prone to leaks, spills, and explosions? When an accident happens in the future, do we want to shrug our shoulders and say “they knew the risks when they moved there”? Is that the appropriate response to those families suffering in West?
I don’t think it is, because I believe cities have an obligation to avoid zoning homes and schools next to dangerous industrial facilities. This is an essential way that local governments fulfill their basic function of protecting public health, safety, and welfare. It’s part of what binds as together and makes us a community rather than a collection of consumers-of-residences. For those of us crafting the comprehensive plan, we need to overcome the shackles of vested rights and the myopia of free market development. We owe it to our future citizens to do everything we can to prevent a catastrophe in Denton.