The fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that exploded two weeks ago was a frequent target of theft and sabotage. Not from farmers looking for free soil supplements, apparently, but from people looking to acquire one of the key ingredients for making methamphetamine.
Anhydrous ammonia, a key element in fertilizer production, is also used to make the highly popular drug, as any fan of Breaking Bad is likely aware. (If you're curious, the Riverfront Times, an alt-weekly in St. Louis, explains the role the ammonia plays.) Drug manufacturers, often looking to save on production costs, apparently learned that West Fertilizer was an easy source of cheap raw material. And in a plot more nefarious — and real — than Walt and Jessie's fictional run on methylamine, Reuters reports on the plant's history of tampering.
Police records show West Fertilizer began complaining of repeated thefts from the facility in June 2001, when burglars stole 150 pounds of anhydrous ammonia from storage tanks three nights in a row. Nearly a year later, a plant manager told police that thieves were siphoning four-to-five gallons of the liquefied fertilizer every three days.
After a series of break-ins a few years ago, the company installed a security system, but that wasn't enough of a deterrent.
The last record of tampering was in October 2012, when a 911 caller reported an odor "so strong it can burn your eyes." The firm dispatched Cody Dragoo, an employee often sent after hours to shut leaking valves and look into break-ins. That night, he shut off the valve but reported it had been tampered with.
Dragoo was killed in the explosion.
Texas is actually not a big meth-producing state. According to the DEA's latest data, it had far fewer production sites in 2012 than most states, especially given its size. Only 32 meth labs were found in the state, compared to 1,800 in Missouri or 147 in New York. There's one big reason for that: much of its methamphetamine is smuggled in from Mexico.
It's not yet known what caused the fire that led to the explosion that killed 14 people and damaged scores of buildings in the small Texas town. Various reports have suggested that the plant was storing far more fertilizer than it was allowed to. It also hadn't been inspected by the government in nearly 30 years.
Last week, the Waco Tribune ran an editorial downplaying the risks of fertilizer production. Gary Johnson, a former aerospace engineer, walks through why such a facility might become dangerous, emphasizing that it usually isn't. At the end of the piece, Johnson identifies the real threat.
[N]ow something new must be considered: terrorists breaking into agricultural supply businesses at night with blasting caps and dynamite, deliberately using that shock sensitivity to start explosions. No fire is required. This is a lot more sinister and dangerous than druggies breaking in to steal ammonia to make meth.
The Reuters report doesn't appear to include any incidents in which terrorists were tampering with West Fertilizer's ammonia tanks.