AUSTIN, TX — At 7:30 pm Eastern time on May 16, Erin Burnett turned toward the camera in CNN’s New York studio and teed up the next story: “The people of West, Texas, have been waiting for a month to find out what caused the horrific fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 15 people and leveled much of their town. Today, state and federal authorities said they still can’t get to the bottom of it.”
Burnett tossed to correspondent Ed Lavandera out in West, where federal and state authorities had just announced that they had narrowed the cause of the fire that triggered the April 17 blast to three possibilities—a crime, an electrical failure, or a malfunctioning golf cart battery—but a definitive explanation remained elusive. As Lavandera explained that the precise cause is still undetermined, Burnett looked quizzical. “It’s a fertilizer plant,” she replied.
The exchange between the anchor in New York and the correspondent in Texas neatly epitomized how the West tragedy, in which 15 people were killed and more than 200 injured, vexed a lot of the news coverage—particularly that from out-of-state and national outlets. While the contemporaneous bombing at the Boston Marathon had a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, with the alleged villains caught or killed within a week, West refuses to conform to a simple narrative. Today, the story stubbornly remains a mystery subject to continued scientific, forensic, and investigative probing, and interest from national outlets has waned—a month after much of a town was demolished, not one cable news network cut into its coverage to carry the news conference on the investigation live.
As in many disasters, manmade or natural, a lot of the initial reporting about the explosion in West turned out to be wrong. That sometimes comes with the territory—as authorities puzzle out what happened, they share claims and theories that turn out not to hold up. But too often in coverage of West, caveats were disregarded, theories were presented as certainties or without ample skepticism, inaccuracies were repeated, and facts that ran against the prevailing narrative—preventable industrial accident—were sidelined. There were a handful of local news outlets that shined (more on that later). But first, the shortcomings.
1) The first big blunder out of the gate was the claim or suggestion—often unattributed to any source, official or otherwise—that the explosive material was anhydrous ammonia, a liquid that readily converts to gas, is used in fertilizer, and was present at the West facility. On April 18, the day after the explosion, for example, The Washington Post referred definitively (and without attribution) to anhydrous ammonia as “the substance that exploded catastrophically Wednesday at a company in West, Texas.” The Denver Post did much the same (April 18 headline: “Anhydrous ammonia, which exploded in Texas, used often in Colorado.”) CBS This Morning, in an interview the same day with a physicist who consults for the network in New York, speculated that water from fire hoses had destabilized the anhydrous ammonia, causing it to explode and setting off the ammonium nitrate (another material present at the facility).
But the news outlets reporting this theory overlooked the fact that anhydrous ammonia, while it can be toxic, is generally not known to explode. And company paperwork filed with the state had said the gas would not pose a catastrophic risk, as The Dallas Morning News noted almost as soon as the explosion took place. While the company’s say-so alone, of course, was not reason enough to eliminate the gas as a potential cause of the blast, it might have given reporters pause.
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.
4) Some news outlets—often on opinion pages—made sweeping calls for more regulation without clarifying for readers the existing regulations and the company’s compliance with them, the enforcement responsibilities of the patchwork of agencies involved (which agencies had safety responsibilities versus, say, national security or environmental oversight) or acknowledging that industrial accident (preventable or not) was not the only possible explanation. The New York Times ran an op-ed on April 20 that compared the West explosion to the Texas City disaster, which claimed 600 lives in 1947, and threaded them together as consequences of the same “pathological avoidance of oversight.” But ammonium nitrate has been subject to federal regulation and oversight since the 1970s. Elsewhere, explainers from ProPublica and StateImpact, a project of National Public Radio, acknowledged that many facts were still unknown but framed the explosion as a clear regulatory failure. In-state, the Houston Chronicle editorialized that the accident was “entirely preventable.” In a variety of accounts—including this April 29 Christian Science Monitor opinion piece—the EPA (responsible for environmental quality) was conflated without explanation with OSHA (responsible for workplace safety).
With the narrative of preventable industrial accident set, confirmation bias set in. Every past regulatory slip at the West facility was examined as a step on the way to the April 17blast—even though one August 2006 visit by officials led to both a fine and construction of a wall to better protect the anhydrous ammonium tanks. Once again, a local news organization had that detail: WFAA, owned by Belo Corp.
5) Meanwhile, information that ran contrary to that prevailing narrative was sidelined. An April 24 USA Today editorial stated that investigators “seem to have ruled out a deliberate attack” (They had not.). On May 10, that paper’s news pages reported that law enforcement officials had “launched a criminal investigation.” In fact, the blast site had been treated as a possible crime scene all along. The facility was not a factory, as some reported. And fire crews spraying water on the fire did not worsen the explosion as some early reports speculated. You could learn all this by reading the one outlet that was getting it routinely right, The Dallas Morning News.
A strong showing in Dallas
From the outset, the big Dallas paper—owned by A. H. Belo Corp., a 2008-spin-off from Belo Corp.—had advantages.
Serving the country’s ninth largest city, and with a newsroom still numbering in the hundreds, the Morning News was the closest big news organization to the explosion. It had expertise ranging from a computer-assisted reporting team to an environmental writer to editors experienced with crashes, explosions, and investigations. And while the paper moved fast—breaking more accurate stories than anyone—it moved deliberately.
“I guess,” says editor Bob Mong, “we’ve been conservatively aggressive.”
The paper began searching regulatory records in the first few hours after the explosion, uncovering the company’s EPA report about its anhydrous ammonia—an early indicator of the paper’s ability to get hard information fast but to treat it carefully. It maintained two reporters in West to follow the story, even as investigators revealed very little, while a larger team back in Dallas filed open records requests and mapped out for readers 44 other locations in Texas where potentially dangerous fertilizers are stored. The paper also sketched out the patchwork of agencies that have responsibility in incidents like these, making investigations—and reporting on them—that much more complicated. And rather than jumping to argue for new rules, in that same piece the Morning News pointed out that existing rules were not being enforced. From Washington to West, wrote environmental writer Randy Lee Loftis, “the system broke down.”
Loftis was given carte blanche to cover the range of possible causes, from oversight failure to regulatory shortcomings to even simple fire prevention measures the company itself might have taken to prevent or at least mitigate the disaster, like installing a sprinkler system and paying for a $200 fire inspection—but only after confirming that the company had not installed such a system.
Loftis even analyzed imagery from the scene with former professional investigators to explore the possibility not just that the ammonium nitrate had exploded, but that it may have been aided by the mixing of fuel with the fertilizer pellets—a common and dangerous explosive, and one scenario in which the West explosion might have been a crime.
Throughout, the paper provided a rich mix of coverage, often ahead of the pack. The Morning News broke the story of a new criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers and the arrest—of as-yet unclear significance—of a paramedic charged with possessing a pipe bomb. Meanwhile, the editorial page criticized the state for a lack of transparency in providing records of chemicals at sites around the state; it also chided local, state, and federal officials for passing the buck over who had enforcement responsibilities, including what it labeled as the town’s poor evacuation planning. Editorial writer Todd Robberson called for more diligent zoning and more regulation. In the context of careful and wide-ranging reporting, these editorials and columns added to the mix of coverage rather than defining it.
Elsewhere in Texas, the Dallas CBS affiliate reported on April 22 that state officials had visited and inspected the West fertilizer facility frequently, as often as 10 times a year, even at the summoning of the plant manager and the affiliate, and established that the reports of an extraordinary amount of ammonium nitrate on the site were not accurate. The Waco Tribune-Herald, a far smaller paper, was deft on breaking news, particularly on and about the first horrific night, and provided fast updates via Twitter as investigators released their results last week. The paper also published on May 21 a fascinating op-ed by an academic explaining how ammonium nitrate really works, how common sense practices have largely kept the fertilizer from exploding since the Texas City disaster—until now, there has been just one accidental ammonium nitrate explosion explosion at a fertilizer plant in this country since then, an accident in Iowa 20 years ago—and how crime was still a possibility.
Even as investigators released their preliminary conclusions in West last week, more investigations are underway. The federal Chemical Safety Board—notorious for being overworked and slow—will start its own probe, while probes by other state and federal agencies, including the ATF and the Texas Rangers, continue. These investigations deserve sustained, aggressive, careful coverage—reporting and commentary that pushes authorities to identify the responsible parties and take reasonable steps to prevent future tragedies, but does not jump to conclusions.
Of course, it seems more likely that West will now fade from view, and it also seems possible that we’ll never know exactly what caused the blast. It’s tempting, of course, to wish for a clear-cut conclusion to such a terrible event. I asked Mong, of the Morning News, if he had a hunch. He paused for a bit but didn’t take the bait, saying only, “I think it’s still a big mystery.”
Correction: This post originally misidentified the company that owns The Dallas Morning News. The paper is owned, as of a 2008 spin-off, by A.H. Belo Corp., not Belo Corp. The relevant references have been revised. CJR regrets the error.
Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.