How More Funding And Transparency Could Have Saved The Lives Of Ten Firefighters In West, Texas

(Credit: AP)

The West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people was a study in various regulatory failures that overlooked repeated violations by West Fertilizer Co. for decades before the fatal event. As a new Reuters report details, poorly informed and underfunded emergency response efforts were yet another contributing factor to the chaos.

The breakdown in communication between the company, the state officials and the local emergency response teams meant West firefighters headed to the plant unaware that it housed thousands of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate. When the initial fire ignited, firefighters arrived to put it out. Twenty minutes later, the ammonium nitrate exploded, killing most of the firefighters on the scene.

Other firefighters who have combated ammonium nitrate fires, Reuters reports, were successful largely because they planned their responses around the company’s reports that detailed exactly how much of what risky substances were stored in each facility. In a nearby town, firefighters chose to evacuate homes near a fertilizer plant containing ignited ammonium nitrate rather than attempt to fight the fire. As a result, the fire burned itself out and no one was injured.

Even though the Emergency Planning and Community Right To Know Act (EPCRA) requires companies to inform emergency response teams of the hazardous chemicals stored on premises, West Fertilizer Co. did not report the ammonium nitrate until 2012, at least six years after it began using the substance. Though it was supposed to file copies of the same report to both state and local officials, the record submitted to the state did not list the dangerous chemical. Moreover, the county’s Local Emergency Planning Committee had no record of receiving the report, and it is unclear whether or not the local fire department ever received the right report.

Multiple firefighters told Reuters they had never seen West Fertilizer’s report that could have revealed the conditions they were facing. One responder from a different community tried to look up the company’s report on his way to the scene, but could not find it online. E-Plan, a federally-funded online database for firefighters looking to track these reports, was not used in West, and many firefighters said they did not know the system even existed.

Most local fire departments run on charitable donations and rely on volunteers who are not always given the right resources or training to deal with calamities of the West explosion’s magnitude. The federal reporting law, while well-intentioned, places the burden of processing and planning for massive chemical-related disasters on these local fire departments, with little guidance or training. Daniel Horowitz of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a regulatory agency, told Reuters, “Congress provided the mandate back in 1986, but they didn’t provide any real funding or regulatory authority.”

At this point, however, training firefighters to use the potentially life-saving resources available won’t do much to prevent future disasters. Federal funding for E-Plan was eliminated last October, leaving firefighters unable to quickly access vital information about stored chemicals.

The loss of E-Plan isn’t the only cut facing already over-extended emergency response teams. Federal grants from FEMA are also vital to keep operations running smoothly. Due to the sequestration cuts that automatically kicked in three months ago, many fire departments and other disaster teams will no longer get the funding they need to update their equipment and train emergency responders.

As local teams are left to prepare for the worst with barebones funding and little guidance, federal agencies have also dropped the ball on safeguards to prevent these disasters from ever happening. In the case of West Fertilizer Co., federal regulators failed to inspect the plant for decades, and allowed it to keep operating despite multiple violations. Meanwhile, the fertilizer industry has lobbied aggressively against even the most basic safety precautions.