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Texas town eyes new fertilizer plant a year after deadly blast

Investigators stand amid the aftermath of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 18, 2013. RE
Investigators stand amid the aftermath of a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas April 18, 2013. RE

By Lisa Maria Garza

WEST, Texas (Reuters) - Not far from an enormous crater where a fertilizer plant stood before an explosion there killed 15 people, lifeless and uprooted trees surround boarded-up homes spray-painted with "OK."

A year ago, that designation was meant to signal that structures had been checked for blast victims but now it might also describe a growing willingness in this central Texas town to build a new fertilizer plant, regardless of potential risk.

"It's something that we have to tread lightly on because it's a very delicate subject, but it's one we have to tackle," said West Mayor Tommy Muska who, at a recent town hall meeting, raised the possibility of another plant being built.

"This is an agricultural community and we lost a very valuable industry there," the mayor said.

The April 17, 2013, explosion at the plant, which had operated for more than 50 years on the north side of town, caused an estimated $100 million in damages. The blast killed first responders racing to contain a fire at the plant.

There are now only cement slabs where the public high school and a nursing home used to be. At the plant site that once drew droves of farmers, a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep is being filled in by construction crews.

Investigators say the source of the explosion was ammonium nitrate being stored at the plant, but they have not identified the cause of the fire that ignited it. Plant owner Donald Adair, who bought the business in 2004 when it was threatened with closure, soon after the incident issued a statement vowing to cooperate with the investigation but has otherwise remained out of the public eye.

Joe Kotch, who moved to West soon after the plant was built in the 1960s, said it had always been a staple of the community and he supports the idea of building a new one.

"If it's state-of-the-art, then it won't blow up," said Kotch, 72, whose home had $60,000 worth of damage from the blast.

"I know some people don't want it because they knew someone who got blown away or hurt, but we need one somewhere in the area," Kotch said.

Other residents said a new plant would help boost a sagging local economy but it should be built far from the town's center.

"It would be a service to our community if we had another fertilizer plant, but it needs to be located outside of town and maintained properly," said Mimi Irwin, owner of the downtown Village Bakery, which sells Czech pastries called kolaches.

The establishment's revenue was squeezed by the loss of a steady stream of customers - farmers who, on their trips to the fertilizer plant, often stopped by the bakery and other family-owned restaurants as well as the local hardware store, she said.

Farmer Garnett Davis had been a plant customer for 18 years and made his last supply run three days before the explosion.

Without the West plant, which mixed fertilizers for corn, wheat and grain sorghum farmers based on their soil samples, Davis now has to drive 20 miles north to Hillsboro or 50 miles northeast to Waxahachie.

"It used to be, I could make my run and be done in an hour," Davis, 71, said. "Now, that's impossible to do."

Some residents were hesitant to embrace the idea of a new fertilizer plant and declined to speak publicly because of the delicacy of the issue. Mayor Muska said he heard some angry comments when he raised the topic at the town meeting.

"It's too soon to be talking about another plant when the damage from the old one isn't fixed yet," said a middle-aged woman from West who declined to be identified.

If a new plant is ever built, it would be made of steel and concrete with a proper sprinkler system, something the previous plant was lacking, Muska said.

"We want it back in West, but we need to have it safe. We need to have it zoned correctly so people don't build around it - we learned that important lesson," Muska said.

(Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Gunna Dickson)

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