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West, Texas Fertilizer Plant: Meth Thieves Targeted Plant For Supplies, Say Police

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Burglars occasionally sneaked into a Texas fertilizer plant in the years before its deadly explosion last month. AP
Burglars occasionally sneaked into a Texas fertilizer plant in the years before its deadly explosion last month. AP

WEST, Texas -- Burglars occasionally sneaked into a Texas fertilizer plant in the years before its deadly explosion last month -- sometimes looking for a chemical fertilizer that can be used to make methamphetamine, according to local law enforcement records.

Sheriff's deputies were called more than 10 times to West Fertilizer in the 11 years before the April 17 blast that killed 14 people, injured 200 and levelled part of the tiny town of West, according to McLennan County sheriff's office files released through an open-records request. Multiple calls involved suspicion that anhydrous ammonia was being stolen.

Authorities are still searching for a cause of the blast, which was overshadowed by the deadly Boston Marathon bombings earlier in the week.

Matt Cawthon, the chief deputy sheriff in McLennan County, said in an interview Friday that anhydrous ammonia theft calls had declined in recent years, as had the number of meth labs authorities have busted, as Mexican drug cartels smuggle in more of the drug.

"The thefts ... and the reports for law enforcement assistance in that area, in my estimation, were minor and were petty,'' Cawthon said.

West Fertilizer did not have a fence or security guards, and just one security camera was installed, Cawthon said.

Anhydrous ammonia is a fertilizer that is a frequent target of burglars trying to manufacture methamphetamine. In the right conditions it can be flammable or explosive, though that is nearly impossible outdoors. However, a leak of the gas could create a potentially fatal toxic chemical cloud.

The plant also had an unspecified amount of ammonium nitrate, a chemical that has been used in explosives. Federal regulation of ammonium nitrate is largely focused on the safe storage of the chemical, for fear it will fall into the hands of criminals or terrorists.

There were no reports that ammonium nitrate had been stolen from the plant, Cawthon said.

"If ammonium nitrate had been stolen ... then that report would have generated probably a lot of attention,'' he said.

Authorities are hoping to determine how much ammonium nitrate was on site when the blast occurred.

A spokeswoman for the Texas State Fire Marshal's office, which is investigating the explosion, said the anhydrous ammonia tanks stored at West Fertilizer appeared to have no sign that they were part of a blast that left a crater more than 90 feet (27 metres) wide.

Reuters first reported on the break-ins, based on police records.

Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for Adair Grain, which owned and operated the plant, declined to answer questions about plant security to avoid ``misunderstandings or confusions.''

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