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West, Texas fertilizer plant had no security, history of breaches

West, Texas fertilizer plant had no security, history of breaches
The April 17 explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant, which left 14 dead and scorched an area of the small Texas community surrounding it, has been found to have been a repeated target of theft, most notably by people involved in the meth trade.

According to police records first brought to light by Reuters, the fertilizer plant, which lacked even fencing, was the subject of 11 burglary reports and at least five ammonia leaks in the past twelve years.

One plant manager reported in 2002 that burglars were stealing four to five gallons of anhydrous ammonia every three days. In addition to being a risk for explosion in certain conditions, anhydrous ammonia is a liquid gas used in the production of methamphetamine.

Police were called on occasion due to the smell of gas, or hints that the plant might have been burglarized.

More recent calls include signs that someone had seemingly gone through the plant's office without taking anything. In one 2009 record, someone reported that a television in the office had been left tuned to a Spanish-language channel. The year prior, an intruder appeared to have viewed pornography on a secretary's computer.

Investigators of the April explosion are currently following some 100 leads, which according to Reuters include a call to an arson hotline which claimed evidence of a fire at the plant earlier that day.

McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon has said that the theft of anhydrous ammonia is common in the area, and after reviewing police records from the past 12 years reached the conclusion that security was clearly lax at West.

The West Fertilizer Company, shown from the air, lies in ruins on April 18, 2013 in West, Texas (AFP Photo / Chip Somodevilla)

“The perimeter was not fenced, and the facility had no burglar alarms or security guards,"

he said.

"It was a hometown-like situation. Everybody trusts everybody,"

said Cawthon.

That the plant would be easy to come in and out of is not in itself that unusual, since farmers needing fertilizer often visited during the day.

Safety experts cited by Reuters found the recurring security breaches troubling, particularly due to the tons of ammonium nitrate stored at West. Though it is used as a fertilizer, ammonium nitrate can also become a dangerous explosive, and was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that leveled the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and left over 160 dead.

The Houston Chronicle has reported that at least 62 businesses in the state store 1,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate, which is suspected to be the chemical behind the West, Texas explosion. As has previously been reported, the West Fertilizer Plant's administrators neglected to disclose an accurate amount to the Department of Homeland Security.

According to the Chronicle’s investigation, the West facility was at the time storing more explosive ammonium nitrate

“than virtually any other similar business in Texas.”

Some 80 state and federal investigators are continuing a probe into the catastrophic accident, and hope to have reached some conclusions by May 10.

Investigators hope to determine just how much of the explosive was stored at the fertilizer plant by examining the 90-foot-crater left behind by the ensuing explosion.