Texas Lawmakers Targeted Regulatory Agency Before Explosion

Photo via the AP

Investigators still don’t know what caused the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. in Texas last week, although criminal activity has already been ruled out. It is clear that while the plant fell under the purview of seven regulators, many of which have fined and/or cited it in the past, at least some steps weren’t taken, such as reporting its large amounts of ammonium nitrate to the Department of Homeland Security. As the Dallas Morning News has notes, many agencies knew that the plant had high levels of hazardous chemicals, yet none felt they had the authority or responsibility to address the potential for fires or explosions.

There is at least one agency that is responsible for inspecting such plants: the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which the Dallas Morning News says “has by far the longest reach of any Texas regulatory agency and issues permits for many agricultural companies.” The TCEQ inspected the plant in 2006 after a complaint of a strong ammonia smell. While there, it found that the company’s “grandfathered” status expired in 2004 and cited it for failing to get a permit, which it later obtained.

This very agency had been targeted by Texas lawmakers before the explosion, as Elena Craft writes at EDF:

[S]ome legislators have recommended this legislative session that state environmental laws be weakened. This is in addition to recent budget cuts at the state environmental agency; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) budget was recently cut by $305 million, which reduced the agency by 235 full-time employees.

The bill to weaken the TCEQ was introduced by state Sen. Troy Fraser (R) and state Rep. Allan Ritter (R) and would make it harder for citizens to contest permits under consideration. One of the few full accountings of what chemicals the plant was storing and in what volumes was with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is meant to provide the community with information about what facilities are storing in their areas.

The fact that the plant was able to store such high volumes of hazardous chemicals without regular safety inspections or, reportedly, having sprinklers or fire walls has led many environmental groups to argue for more and stronger regulations. Yet a spokesperson for an industry group, The Fertilizer Institute, has already stated that there is “a very rigorous regulatory structure in place right now” and worried that “someone may react quickly and perhaps try to change things or impose new regulation on top of existing regulation that’s already effective.”

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) has joined this perspective, saying that calls for increased regulation are “premature” and he remains comfortable with the level of oversight in Texas.