How The West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Slipped Through The Regulatory Cracks

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"How The West, Texas Fertilizer Plant Slipped Through The Regulatory Cracks"

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Authorities still haven’t determined what caused the explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas on Wednesday night, although the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has already begun an investigation that will release preliminary findings in the coming weeks and months. The CSB looks at, among other things, whether regulatory agencies failed in preventing accidents. And the plant falls under the purview of an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), and the Office of Texas State Chemist.

Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants. Given its size, most of the inspections only happen after a complaint is made.

OSHA: OSHA records show that West Chemical & Fertilizer Co. hadn’t been inspected since 1985. Before that it had been issued a $30 fine for a serious violation for storing anhydrous ammonia, and OSHA cited it for four other serious violations but didn’t issue fines.

PHMSA: The PHMSA last inspected the West plant in 2011, when it issued a $10,100 fine for missing placards, transporting anhydrous ammonia in non-specification tanks, and “not having a security plan” in violation of Hazardous Materials Regulations. The plant took corrective action and reached a compromise with PHMSA in which it admitted to the violations and paid a lowered penalty of $5,250.

EPA: The EPA issued a $2,300 fine for the West plant in 2006 for failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards. It wasn’t fined again after that, and in its report to the EPA, the plant stated “no” under the question of whether there were fire or explosive risks. It said the worst possible scenario would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn’t harm anyone.

TCEQ: A complaint of a strong ammonia smell triggered an investigation by the TCEQ in 2006, but it took the agency 11 days to inspect the plant. While at the plant, investigators also found that it had been operating for two years without an air quality permit, but after it cited the company and the company obtained the permit TCEQ didn’t return, as it usually doesn’t visit facilities unless there has been a complaint.

DHS: Fertilizer facilities are required to report to the DHS if they hold more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate. The plant in West held 270 tons of it, but it failed to report this as is required. The plant did report this to the Texas DSHS.

DSHS: The West plant submitted a Type II report as part of the Chemical Reporting Program for last year, in which it documented many hazardous chemicals in amounts that pose a risk of fire or reactivity. It reported 100,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which poses an short-term risk of fire, and 18,000 of ammonium nitrate in its largest container, which poses both a short-term and long-term risk of fire, among others. These reports serve as notification to the state that facilities have certain hazardous chemicals and can be used by first responders and the community to plan for emergencies. This information was not shared with DHS.

Office of Texas State Chemist: While this agency monitors hazardous material and works on preparedness planning, the records for West, Texas all relate to questions about labeling and purity of products. It visited the plant just before the explosion, on April 5, prompted by a complaint by the plant itself that diammonium phosphate it had ordered was something else, and analyzed a sample. It previously cited the West plant for mislabeling products twice in 2011 but doesn’t seem to have issued fines.

There is no federal agency that determines how close a facility like the one in West, which handles potentially dangerous substances, can be to population centers. So in many states these decisions are left up to local zoning authorities, as they are in Texas. Lax zoning laws meant that the West plant received a special permit to be located less than 3,000 feet from a school. That school was forced to evacuate due to a “concerning fire” at the plant in February of this year.

Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 Congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.

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