Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that OSHA issued the West Chemical & Fertilizer Co., as the plant was called at the time, a $30 fine for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia.
OSHA cited the plant for four other serious violations of respiratory protection standards but did not issue fines. The maximum fine for a serious violation was $1,000.
The plant was also cited for failing to get a permit in 2006 after a complaint of a strong ammonia smell. That smell was reported to be “very bad” on the night of the explosion. Storing ammonia at fertilizer plants can be very hazardous; in 2008, the Center for American Progress found a fertilizer plant that stored millions of pounds of anhydrous ammonia in Pasadena, Texas to be among the most hazardous chemical facilities in the country, with more than 3 million people living in range of a worst-case ammonia gas release.
A day after the explosion in West, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report documenting a widespread lack of workplace inspections by state OSHA programs. After surveying 22 state-run programs, it found that the agencies had problems with hiring and retaining inspectors, in part due to low pay. State budget cuts have had a big impact, leading to funding problems, and the federal agency often hasn’t taken over state plans because its own budget is too tight. This has meant that a workplace only gets a visit from OSHA inspectors every 99 years on average, with some state programs even worse. In Texas, a plant can only expect an inspection every 126 years.
The report led Rep. George Miller (D-CA) to introduce a bill to give the federal agency more authority to intervene in state plans and strengthen fines and prosecutions against violations. The lack of OSHA inspections contributes to a high rate of workplace deaths in the U.S., with over 4,500 in 2010 alone. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already stated its opposition to Democrats’ efforts to strengthen workplace safety regulations.
The plant in West was inspected in 2011 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which issued a fine of $10,100 for missing placards and “not having a security plan” in violation of Hazardous Materials Regulations. A compromise was reached in 2012 after corrective actions were taken, which included the plant admitting to the violations and paying a lowered penalty of $5,250.