Staff furloughs at the Chemical Safety Board during the shutdown delayed its investigative work into the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX that killed 15 in April, Board spokeswoman Hillary Cohen told the Huffington Post. Its preliminary findings on the cause of the explosion were set to be presented at a public hearing on October 24, which had to be postponed and now won’t happen until early 2014.
The cause of the West Fertilizer Co. explosion is still unknown six months later. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded its excavation of the explosion site in May, but it didn’t determine the cause, saying the potential causes include criminal activity, a problem with the electrical system, or an old golf cart on the premises.
The Chemical Safety Board will not just determine the causes but also look at whether gaps in regulatory oversight might also be to blame. The plant managed to slip by seven different federal and state regulatory agencies, most of which claim they didn’t have the authority to oversee the 270 tons of ammonium nitrate and 100,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia it had on site. They also didn’t have to coordinate, which might have brought the risks to light. The plant hadn’t been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985.
The Huffington Post also reports that the shutdown has pushed back new chemical safety rules President Obama authorized in response to the explosion by at least a month. In August, Obama issued an executive order for federal agencies “to update regulations and coordinate on initiatives that would improve safety at chemical facilities across the country,” HuffPost reports. It included forming a new Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Homeland Security. More than 4,000 chemical facilities around the country pose a risk to populations similar to that of West, and 90 could impact more than 1 million people in a worst-case scenario. Public listening sessions on chemical safety were also pushed back.
The actual plant is facing $118,300 in federal fines for two dozen serious safety violations, including the lack of an emergency response plan, despite costing more than a dozen lives and $100 million in property damage.