On May 3, officials threw cold water on the anhydrous ammonia theory, telling reporters that the tanks of anhydrous ammonia “probably weren’t involved in the fire or explosion,” as the tanks remained largely intact. Reuters, on that same day, exclusively reported—based on open records requests—that the facility in West had been the target of break-ins for the theft of anhydrous ammonia, which is widely used in the production of methamphetamines. It wasn’t until the sixth paragraph of the piece that Reuters acknowledged that “investigators have offered no evidence that security breaches contributed to the deadly incident,” that there “is no indication that the explosion had anything to do with the theft of materials for drug making,” and indeed that “anhydrous ammonia has been ruled out as a cause because the four storage tanks remained intact after the blast.”
2) Then, there was the rail car theory: A rail car filled with ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that under the right circumstances can burn and explode, had detonated as a result of the fire and devastated the town. Likening it to a “small nuke,” The New York Post quoted an unnamed Obama administration official as saying: “Authorities suspect the blast was set off by a rail car holding a large quantity of ammonia nitrate that somehow caught fire or blew up.” The Post’s sole source, however, appeared to have been speculating; the source also added that a deliberate act had been ruled out when a criminal investigation by federal and state authorities was, in fact, underway and was no secret. More sourcing might have helped.
In one case, though, an official source confounded the matter. In Texas, five days after the blast, the top environmental enforcer speculated in a public forum that ammonium nitrate in a nearby rail car might be to blame, even though he acknowledged he was not a safety official, nor was his agency part of the investigation. The San Antonio Express-News headline read: “Rail Car Suggested As Cause of Blast.” That same day, investigators quashed the rail car story, telling the press assembled in West that no, the rail car had not exploded; it was itself shredded by the blast.
3) There was also the matter of how much ammonium nitrate was on site the day of the blast, and how much actually exploded. On April 26, NBC and MSNBC reported online that “270 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant last Wednesday.” But 270 tons is the amount of ammonium nitrate that was present at the West facility the previous year, according to its state filing. Precisely how much was on site on the day of the explosion was not revealed by the document, and investigators would later conclude that about one-tenth that quantity—about 28 to 34 tons—actually caught fire and exploded. (There were about 40 tons, total, present in the fertilizer building and another 100 in the railcar on the rail line that did not, in fact, explode.) Other outlets, like The Dallas Morning News and Reuters, were more careful, noting that the filing referred to the prior year while also raising questions about the company’s apparent failure to disclose the quantity to the Department of Homeland Security. The local CBS affiliate did more: before investigators released their initial findings, the station interviewed the facility manager and correctly reported that about 50 tons of fertilizer were present in the building.