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Texas town holds no grudge against exploded fertilizer plant owner

When Texas farmer Donald Adair bought the floundering West Fertilizer Co. in 2004, his neighbours in the rolling countryside near West were grateful he had saved them from driving extra miles to Waco or Hillsboro to buy fertilizer, feed and tools.

After the plant exploded last week, flattening homes, damaging schools, killing 14 people and leaving some 200 others with injuries including burns, lacerations and broken bones, they still described the 83-year-old owner as honest and good.

“I like him very well, he’s helped me out,” said William Supak, a retired farmer who lives a few hundred metres from a farm house owned by the Adairs, and recalled a time when his neighbour helped save his hay by putting out a fire.

As he paused from mowing the grass in front of his house, Supak said the disaster in West did not change his view of Adair, whom he said he sometimes sees using a powered wheelchair to fetch his mail.

“I don’t see him very often, but I understand that he’s not in too good a health,” said Supak.

Another neighbour of Adair, who asked not to be identified, described him as a “good guy.”

“It’s a farming community, everybody knows him. Like I said, it happened, and (to blame him) don’t make good sense.”

Five days after the explosion, school reopened on Monday and grieving families planned funerals for the paramedics and firefighters who died trying to fight the blaze.

Investigators said they still had not determined the cause of the explosion, and the people who lived closest to the plant had not yet been allowed to return to their homes.

Adair has stayed out of the public eye, saying nothing since the statement he issued on Friday in which he vowed to co-operate with the investigation. A spokesman for Adair said he had been at the West Church of Christ, where he is an elder, on Wednesday night when he learned of the fire and drove to the scene to urge people to move to safety.

“As a lifelong resident, my heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community,” Adair said in the statement. “The selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us is something I will never get over.”

White two-story house

Adair lives about eight km from West in a neat, white two-story house set back from the road down a gravel driveway marked by a green John Deere mailbox. The house is surrounded by farm buildings and equipment, and has a basketball hoop.

A Reuters reporter went to knock on the door as a silver Lincoln sedan rolled slowly down the drive and pulled up. A silver-haired woman with curls, matching one neighbour’s description of Adair’s wife Wanda, said: “Leave this property now,” pausing to add, “Please.”

Six of Adair’s seven children also live in the West area. Daughter Diane, a nurse, helped provide triage to injured residents after the blast, said Daniel Keeney, a crisis communications expert who is speaking on behalf of Adair.

Most of the dozen residents interviewed by Reuters, including farmers, church members and local business owners who know Donald Adair, did not fault him for operating the plant so close to a residential area or for storing large quantities of the hazardous materials ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia.

The privately-held fertilizer plant has been in operation since 1962, long before the homes and nearby schools were built, and the fertilizer was needed by farmers, they said.

“They provided a huge service to this area,” said Mimi Irwin, owner of the Village Bakery, which sells kolache pastries in downtown West and hails itself as the first all-Czech bakery in Texas. “People are just sick about it.”

Irwin said the Adair family is generous in donating to community events, such as church bazaars and sports tournaments.

“They’re always one of the names in the newspaper as one of the givers,” she said. “They’ve been good citizens of this community.”

Donald Adair is a lifelong farmer who also spent about 30 years working at General Tire and Rubber Co. in Waco, said Donald Cernosek, who worked with Adair as mill operators until the plant closed in the late 1980s.

“He’s kind of quiet, but he’s always joking about something,” said Cernosek, now an insurance agent in West who was busy on Monday handling claims for victims of the blast.

West Fertilizer Co. was in financial distress when Adair bought it nine years ago and farmers worried about losing a local resource for the supplies needed to grow corn, wheat and milo, several people said. Plant employees mixed fertilizers for farmers based on tests of their soil samples.

The fertilizer facility had an appraised market value of $908,400 when he bought it in 2004, according to McLennan County property tax records (all figures US$). By last year, its appraised value had fallen to $723,771, although it was not clear why.

The stable of Adair family businesses also includes Adair Grain, which is the parent company of West Fertilizer, and Adair Farms. Adair owns some 5,000 acres of cropland and grassland in the area, Keeney said, which according to local tax records would be worth several million dollars at market prices.

Management left to others

Adair left the day-to-day operations at West Fertilizer to the plant’s 13 employees, including general manager Ted Uptmore Sr., who has been employed by the company for 50 years, Keeney and others said.

Uptmore ran the fertilizer part of the company, while Andrew “Rusty” Kwast, Adair’s son-in-law, ran the grain side, Keeney said. Adair continued to work his farm, the spokesman said.

The Adair family have been among the biggest recipients in the area of farm subsidy payments from the federal government. Donald Adair received $874,522 during the period 1995 to 2011 and his son Gary received more than $1.2 million in subsidies during the period, according to a database of U.S. government data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

Adair’s neighbors said West Fertilizer did brisk business at this time of year from farmers from a wide radius around West, selling dry fertilizer or tanks of anhydrous ammonia.

Local residents also said they knew that handling fertilizer was a potentially dangerous business.

West Fertilizer disclosed to a Texas state agency that, as of the end of 2012, the company was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, mixed with other compounds to produce a dry fertilizer. The same type of solid fertilizer was mixed with fuel and used by Timothy McVeigh to raze the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people.

West Fertilizer had been fined occasionally for regulatory violations since Adair bought it, but a Texas state environmental official described its safety record as “average.”

A search of federal and state legal records did not turn up any lawsuits against Adair personally or any of his companies.

Cernosek, the local insurance agent, was quick to defend Adair’s reputation even though his home, about 450 metres from the plant, is likely a total loss.

“Hell no,” he said when asked if he held Adair responsible for what happened at the plant. “I in no way will ever file a lawsuit due to any of this.”

But the lack of lawsuits may soon change. A Dallas law firm, Baron + Budd, which was involved in BP oil spill litigation, has set up a toll-free number for victims of the West explosion to contact them about possible legal challenges.

Some residents still had unanswered questions in the difficult, soul-searching days after the blast, among them Emily Polansky, who lives about 800 metres from the plant and had her windows smashed when it blew. Walking with the aid of a cane, she puzzled over how the fire took hold after workers had left the plant and wondered about supervision.

“I feel maybe there was a lack of supervision possibly on the management’s part with employees working there… maybe there weren’t safety precautions taken for dealing with anhydrous ammonia and (ammonium) nitrate,” Polansky, a farmer’s wife who is well-versed in fertilizers, told Reuters at the hotel where she is staying while she is kept out of her damaged home.

But resident Chuck Smith, who helped neighbours leave their homes amid the dark smoke and acrid fumes after the blast, was not prepared to point a finger at the Adairs.

“When all is said and done, they call them accidents for a reason. I mean the people that work there, the people that own that place, that go there … all of them were raised here, have kids here, have family here,” he said. “There was no malicious intent. There was no trying to skimp.”

— Reporting for Reuters by Colleen Jenkins and Tim Gaynor. Additional reporting for Reuters by Chris Francescani.

COPA Medallion COPA finalist in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
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