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Probe of cause continues after fertilizer plant fire, explosion

"Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible." That was a common marketing phrase used by one of the world's largest agricultural biotechnology back in the 1970s. There is no doubt that mankind has benefited a lot from innovative applications of chemicals; both natural and manmade.

But if there is one thing that we have learned from the spread of chemical use it is that it comes with a significant risk. Pittsburgh, like every other community in the nation, has its share of industry which relies on chemicals or produces hazardous chemical byproducts as part of their processes.

There are rules and regulations in place to minimize the risks, but as we have seen in just the past week, those rules are only as effective as the human beings who are supposed to be following them. If oversight slips, the risk factors increase. And what happens then is often what occurred in West, Texas.

Authorities are still trying to determine what caused the devastating fire and explosion that leveled the fertilizer plant in the small Texas town. As most likely know, it not only took out the plant, but it killed 14 people, injured 200 and destroyed about 75 homes in proximity to the facility.

Suspicion is reportedly pointing more and more to an overabundance of ammonium nitrate that was being stored at the facility. Authorities say some 270 tons of the material were there, apparently without the knowledge of state and federal regulators. By way of comparison, Timothy McVeigh used just 2 tons of that chemical in the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing that killed 168 people.

Insurance assessors estimate the damages in West will wind up totaling more than $100 million. But that is just the material damage. The cost of pain and suffering from the loss of life and limb that has resulted is likely to be much higher.

Source: USA Today, "Fertilizer that may have caused Texas explosion is rare," Elizabeth Weise, April 25, 2013

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