Could Your Town Explode?
Anna Baburkina via Shutterstock.com
Thousands of chemical facilities are located in small towns, rural villages and urban areas nationwide.
Sept. 22, 2011 --
After 26 months in an Iranian prison, held on charges of espionage and trespassing, Americans Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal arrived in Oman, freed after what started as a hiking trip and turned into an international incident. Upon their arrival, they were joined by family members as well as Sarah Shourd, a fellow traveler who had previously been released. The Iranian government jailed them on charges of crossing the border into Iran as they were traveling through a relatively safe region of northern Iraq, an accusation the trio flatly rejects. Furthermore, Iranian officials accused Bauer, Fattal and Shourd of infiltrating their nation as agents of the U.S. government. The hikers and the U.S. government also roundly deny the spy charges. Did the hikers choose a dangerous part of the world to go on vacation? No doubt about it. Although the hiking trio is by no means responsible for the ordeal they suffered, Iraq, even within the relatively calm Kurdish region to the north, can be a dangerous place for travelers. But it's not the only high-risk vacation destination that lures adventurous travelers.
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What did you do over your summer vacation? For most college-age students, the answer usually involves summer classes, an internship or maybe a road trip. But that wasn't enough for 21-year-old University of California-Los Angeles student Chris Jeon. After an internship with BlackRock, an asset management firm, Jeon journeyed to Libya after flying into Egypt from his L.A. home during intense fighting between Libyan rebels and the forces loyal to fugitive Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. For the truly immersive experience, Jeon didn't simply lounge around a ritzy hotel far removed from the fighting. Rather, Jeon, who could not speak a word of Arabic, joined up with the rebels. For their part, the rebels have welcomed him, and even gave him an Arabic nickname: Ahmed El Maghrabi Saidi Barga, a compilation of names of local tribes and areas.
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Nestled between India and China, this little-known tropical getaway offers pristine jungles, scenic mountain views and white-sand beaches. There is one drawback, however. This otherwise inviting landscape is also home to one of the most brutal and enduring authoritarian regimes to carry over from the 20th century. Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled by a brutal military junta from 1962 until 2010. Last year, Burma held an election, widely considered to have been fraudulent and undermined by corruption, to produce its first elected leader in also 50 years. Even with the superficial transition to democracy, the Burmese leadership is considered among the most corrupt and repressive governments in the world. Political oppression and an abysmal human rights record haven't stopped hundreds of thousands of tourists from venturing into the Southeast Asian nation.
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For a country that has been compared to Mordor, it's no surprise that American tourists are few and far between. But there are those who venture into the Hermit Kingdom; some 2,000 Westerners visit every year. Contrary to popular belief, Americans can legally travel to North Korea, though proper documentation is required from the North Korean government and those who enter the country without it do so at their own risk. According to the U.S. State Department, punishment for an offense could include heavy fines and prison sentences that include hard labor. Tourists who are welcomed, however, won't find the full resort experience when they arrive. Their whereabouts will be closely followed and each group has state-appointed attendants to ensure no tourist strays from the group.
For decades, cities in Mexico like Acapulco and Tijuana, border towns easily accessible to Americans in the southwestern United States, were synonymous with tequila-fueled revelry south of the border. Now, however, these once-vibrant tourist towns have a different reputation entirely. With escalating violence among Mexico's powerful drug cartels, these cities have lost their allure to most -- but not all -- American tourists. While tourism has taken a hit as a result of the violence that claimed nearly 40,000 lives in the past five years, vacationers looking for more than a little R&R are still flocking to these destinations despite the danger. This isn't to say all of Mexico is dangerous for tourists, of course. The U.S. State Department this year issued a travel advisory singled out the following states: Tamaulipas and Michoacán, as well as parts of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Jalisco.
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Mountain climbing enthusiasts are known to take their passion to the limits. But would some adventure-seekers really go as far as Pakistan, a nation that was controversially labeled the most dangerous nation on Earth? Of course they would. And they're not the only ones among the hundreds of thousands of tourists Pakistan attracts every year. Pakistan has beaches, mountain views and a rich archaeological history. There's even a bike race through the Himalayas being hosted in Pakistan. Pakistan, however, is also home to elements of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other indigenous groups hostile to the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. In other words, not exactly the right place to plan for your next family vacation.
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The fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, on Wednesday, April 17, killed at least a dozen people and destroyed several blocks of the small town.
Is your neighborhood next?
Investigators have yet to determine the exact cause of the fire and powerful explosion that leveled up to 75 homes, tore the roof off a 50-unit apartment building and severely damaged a nearby nursing home and school, according to ABAJournal.com.
But the disaster is bringing increased attention to the thousands of facilities nationwide that store or manufacture fertilizer, especially ammonium nitrate, an explosive chemical often used in agricultural fertilizers.
Ammonium nitrate is believed to be the cause of the fireball that was seen about two hours after the blaze started on the evening of Wednesday, April 17.
In February, Adair Grain (the owner of the West Fertilizer Co. fertilizer plant) informed the Texas Department of Health Services that it was storing up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate at the facility, according to NBC News.
The West, Texas, plant is just one of about 6,000 facilities scattered across the country — located in residential neighborhoods, small towns and urban areas — that manufacture, store or sell ammonium nitrate products, a spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute, an industry trade group, told NBC.
And most county and municipal zoning regulations don't prevent these facilities from being located near schools, hospitals, homes or other businesses. The nursing home and school damaged by the explosion in West were built several years after the fertilizer plant began operating about 50 years ago.
The recent "tragic explosion points to the need for stricter regulations of plants that store and use large quantities of hazardous chemicals," Tom O'Connor of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health told NBC.
"We need a system in which facilities that are inherently dangerous are required to develop detailed disaster prevention plans before they're allowed to operate," O'Connor said.
The explosion in West is not an isolated incident. In 2011, a chemical plant explosion in nearby Waxahachie forced the evacuation of about 1,000 residents, according to the Dallas Morning News, including people living in houses that were just 100 feet (30 meters) away.
Around the world, ammonium nitrate has been implicated in dozens of deadly explosions in recent years, including the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history when almost 600 people died in Texas City, Texas, after two ships carrying the chemical exploded in 1947.
Some critics blame the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the agency responsible for investigating industrial accidents involving chemicals like ammonium nitrate, for sluggish response times and lax investigations.
But the board's directors say their small annual budget of just $10.55 million makes meaningful investigations next to impossible.
"We've made innumerable proposals over the years (to Congress) … pointing out the significant discrepancy between the number of serious accidents and the ones that we can handle from a practical standpoint," managing director Daniel Horowitz told the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news group.
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