Leaders in a Central Texas town that was devastated last year by a deadly fertilizer plant explosion are contemplating building a new facility, calling it a crucial step toward West's economic recovery.
The idea rankles some residents, who say the continued lack of state and local regulations would put them at risk of another disaster. Fifteen people died last April when a fire inside the West Fertilizer Co. ignited 34 tons of ammonium nitrate and caused an explosion that leveled homes and schools.
"It's disheartening for the families to know that these guys went into that fire without knowing what they were walking into," said Melinda Hagar, whose older brother, Morris Bridges, a volunteer firefighter, died in the blast. "What's to say it will be any different the next time?"
But others in West, residents and officials alike, see a new plant as a necessary risk for a town that's surrounded by fields of corn, maize and cattle and whose economic lifeblood is agriculture.
West mayor Tommy Muska acknowledges it will be a "huge pill to swallow" for some of the town's 2,800 residents, but that "West needs to be able to offer that product, as long as it can be designed to not blow up."
Muska introduced the idea of a new plant only last month at a town hall meeting, but is eager to speed along discussions before farmers get used to buying fertilizer from nearby towns; the closest is about 16 miles away. The explosion site was located just outside the city limits between a middle school and a high school, and he says any new plant would be replaced with a modern structure far from inhabited buildings.
Donna Charanza, the general manage for animal feed company West Feeds, says West would be lucky to have another plant, but would "have to be careful about where it goes."
Muska also says that, unlike the plant that exploded, any new plant would be built with a sprinkler system, and the ammonium nitrate kept in concrete bunkers underground, both things the state is looking to regulate in the wake of the West tragedy.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy also is visiting rural communities around Texas -- including West -- to encourage them to adopt new rules for storing ammonium nitrate.
The safety considerations aren't enough to comfort Robbie Payne, the chaplain of West's Volunteer Fire Department and the owner of the town's funeral home.
Payne suffered broken bones, burns and lacerations when he and other first responders rushed to the site of the raging fire. He was 30 yards away from the first blast. He also arranged the funerals for 10 of the 15 victims.
"I certainly have mixed feelings. I know that this type of product is essential to our community, but as a fireman, I sure am concerned about being in close proximity to it again," he said.
Although the explosion was "devastating from a family standpoint," The Village Bakery owner Mimi Irwin believes the residual benefits of building a new fertilizer plant outweigh the risks of another disaster.
She moved back to West six years ago to take over the family business, which is the oldest Czech bakery in Texas. West was founded by Czech migrants in the 1880s, and its kolaches have drawn passengers from Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin for decades.
"It's a concentric circle," she said. "If the farmers are going to Hillsboro or Italy or Corsicana, then they're not in my bakery."
Lawmakers asked Connealy's office Monday to draft legislation for a bill that would require combustible storage facilities to have water sprinkling systems and to segregate the nitrate from the rest of the structure in an inflammable container.
"We have 46 potential Wests out there," Connealy said, referring to fertilizer storage facilities in the state with similar structural risks.