Why Are Media Ignoring TX Fertilizer Plant's History Of Skirting Regulations?

west tx explosion

All three cable news networks failed to highlight a West, Texas, fertilizer plant's storage of 270 tons of ammonium nitrate -- 1,350 times the amount allowed without disclosure to the federal government -- in reporting on the April 17 explosion at that plant. The networks also virtually ignored the plant's history of violating state and federal regulations.

An April 20 Reuters report noted that fertilizer plants and depots must report to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) whenever they hold 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive chemical that can be used in bomb making. Reuters reported, however, that the plant that owned the company, West Fertilizer, “did not tell [DHS] about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principle regulators of ammonium nitrate ... unaware of any danger there.”

Reuters quoted Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) as saying, “It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid. ... This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount ... yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”

Media Matters study found that following the Reuters report, CNN's coverage of the explosion never mentioned that West Fertilizer violated federal regulations by failing to disclose their storage of 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, and MSNBC and Fox News rarely mentioned the violation.

Between 8:38 am on April 20, when Reuters' story was published, and 9:00 am on April 23, CNN featured 24 segments on the story, many of which mentioned that ammonium nitrate was stored at the plant, but failed to note the DHS reporting violation.

MSNBC featured 16 segments on the story in that time frame, 15 of which did not mention Reuters' report; in one segment on April 21, NBC's Charles Hadlock noted that the plant had “several tons of ammonium nitrate” but then wondered out loud, “What is the limit of the amount of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that one company can store without notifying federal authorities? That's an unknown question right now.” However, on his April 22 show, host Chris Hayes devoted several minutes to covering the Reuters report and concluded, “If the Department of Homeland Security didn't know about the West Fertilizer plant, what other plants does it not know about?”

In its 23 segments on the West, TX, explosion, Fox News also largely ignored the plant's violation of federal regulations. One segment, however, did allude to the violation -- on April 21, Fox & Friends Sunday co-host Alisyn Camerota discussed the explosion with environmental safety expert Tim Murphy, a professor at the University of Findlay. In response to Camerota's questions about safety precautions, Murphy noted that the plant had a “large amount of ammonium nitrate” that should have been reported to authorities.

West TX graph

While a few segments on each network alluded to potential previous safety violations at the plant, none examined in detail West Fertilizer's history of violating regulations. As Think Progress reported, the plant has previously been cited or fined by five different government agencies.

The Nation reported that Hugh Kaufman, a long-time whistleblower famous for exposing the Love Canal toxic dumps and hazardous conditions at ground zero, “has sharply criticized the lack of deep media probing of the Texas disaster.” Kaufman told The Nation that he feels as though “editors are scared of” covering the plant's regulatory violations and insufficient government oversight of the plant.