Hearing On West, Texas Explosion Exposes Gaps In Local Regulatory Regime

Officials testified before the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday about the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 160. While the hearing didn’t focus on federal regulatory agencies, it did seek to uncover which local authorities are responsible for overseeing the plant. Nim Kidd, chief of emergency management for the Department of Public Safety (DPS), claimed, “Even in the midst of that great tragedy, the system worked.” But other officials disagreed. The takeaway was that no one agency is tasked with ensuring the safety of such plants.

Local officials: DPS officials testified that ultimately the responsibility for ensuring that hazardous materials like the chemicals stored at West Fertilizer Co. are stored safely falls to local officials, and that it’s up to local fire marshals to inspect them for safety. “It’s a local up,” McCraw said. “It’s not a state down.” Yet while West has a volunteer fire department, it does not have a fire marshal. Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said that expecting small areas like West to have the resources needed to develop systems and plans for emergency situations is unrealistic. Meanwhile, even though facilities like the one in West are required to share information on safety and hazardous chemicals with local officials and emergency planning committees, they may not always put emergency plans in place.

Insurance companies: The West plant did have insurance and Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman said the plant was likely inspected for safety as part of the underwriting process. But companies only evaluate risk from a monetary point of view, not in terms of prevention, she said, and Texas doesn’t mandate the terms for insurance companies that offer policies to such plants. While the West plant had liability insurance, it was not enough to cover the risk inherent in its operations.

TCEQ: The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which inspected the plant in 2006 after a complaint and cited it for operating for two years without an air quality permit, said that it only handles some permits for such facilities. It also focuses on the dangers chemicals pose during normal business hours, according to chairman Bryan Shaw, but the plant was closed at the time of the fire.

Office of the State Chemist: The state chemist, Tim Herman, inspected the plant just before the explosion, on April 5. But at the hearing he testified that his office only looks at security from the perspective of deterring vandalism and theft when issuing permits for those who store or distribute ammonium nitrate. “Our job is to facilitate commerce and provide market protection,” he said. It did not discuss storage of the chemical when it inspected the plant; rather, its primary role is to ensure the purity of the fertilizer being sold.

Agriculture Department: A state official said the agency isn’t tasked with regulating fertilizer facilities.

The hearing also illuminated the many other plants that may pose a danger in the state. Officials from the Texas Department of State Health Services report that 14,000 facilities have extremely hazardous materials, and there are at least 44 with 10,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based explosive material. West Fertilizer Co. reported more than 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate. There are nearly 7,000 chemical facilities around the country that pose a potential threat to populations larger than the town of West.

The cause of the explosion has yet to be determined, but the state fire marshal’s office expects to complete its investigation by May 10. Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has called for a hearing to investigate safety lapses at the plant. But industry groups and Texas lawmakers have already been quick to deny that any new regulations would be necessary in the wake of the explosion.