Texas. The name gives the feeling of romance and bravado and the call of the west. Just saying the name gives me a chill. It used to be a chill of excitement, now it is the thrill of horror. In the interests of full disclosure, my parents were from Texas and used to say while I might have been born in Oklahoma, I was “Made in Texas by Texans”.
New London, Texas is now a sleepy little town, with little to show that it was the site of a major disaster which changed the way the world worked, and saved countless other lives as a result. On Mar 8, 1937 sometime between 3:05 and 3:20, Mr Butler turned on the electric sander in his shop class. Students had been complaining of headaches, but these warnings to the buildup of natural gas under the building were ignored and flipping the switch on his sander caused the building with 600 students and 40 teachers inside to explode with such force that a two ton concrete block crushed a Chevy more than 2 miles away. Approximately 300 died, making it the worst school disaster in US History and the third largest disaster in US History (behind the 1900 Galveston Hurricane and the 1947 Texas City Disaster)
The immediate aftermath of the explosion and rescue operation is worth reading. It made a huge impression on Walter Cronkite, who despite covering WWII and the Nuremburg Trials said “nothing ever equaled it”. However, what I would like to turn your attention to is the actions of the Texas State Legislature. Within weeks, as a result of the blast, the Legislature required that all natural gas in the state would have mercaptans in it (the substance that gives natural gas it’s distinctive smell, it it’s natural form it’s odorless). This action was soon followed by the rest of the US and the World and now it is standard to treat natural gas this way so there is no question of a leak.
Texas led, and the World followed.
On April 17, 2013 at 7:50pm, the West Fertilizer Company storage exploded, killing 15 and injuring 160-200 people and damaging or destroying over 150 buildings. Only the fact that the nearby school was not occupied kept the count from going higher.
The result of the explosion? The Texas Legislature has done very little besides rearrange the regulatory agencies responsible, something akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The politicos trot out the usual suspects as to why a company with 4,500 tons of Ammonium Nitrate storage in the center of a major Texas town still has that storage there. “Landowner Rights” to do whatever they want.
So, how do you fix this? There are many proposals, but I back a very simple, market based one. Require the companies with the storage to carry enough insurance to cover the buildings and people inside the blast radius. The West explosion caused over 100 million dollars in property damage and the plant had a 1 million dollar liability policy. A 100 million dollar policy probably would have caused the plant to move further into the country, or would have caused an insurance company loss consultant to visit, or would have required a sprinkler system (or all of the above). A liability policy covering the entire city of Corsicana, TX, if not prohibitively expensive, would move the company out of town at least.
Somehow, I would expect more in 80 years of progress from the Texas Statehouse.
I would be wrong.