The explosion at a fertilizer in West, Texas that killed at least 14 people and injured more than 200 others last April would have been prevented if there had been better oversight and regulations, according to preliminary findings from an investigation by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released on Tuesday evening.
“The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred,” said CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso. “It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”
At the county level, the CSB found that the local emergency planning committee didn’t have an emergency response plan, but it could have formed one under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. This mean the community was unaware of the potential hazard at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, which was right next to a middle school and within a half mile of a high school and a nursing home. The town’s volunteer firefighters and emergency responders, ten of whom died in the explosion, were unaware of the explosion hazard and were caught in harm’s way, whereas in other explosions involving ammonium nitrate, firefighters knew the danger and pulled back, avoiding loss of life. The firefighters’ deaths were the most in the line of duty in a single episode in nearly 70 years, according to the New York Times.
At the state level, the board found that there is no fire code that would have established standards and, worse, some counties under a certain population level are prohibited from having them. “Local authorities and specifically—local fire departments—need fire codes so they can hold industrial operators accountable for safe storage and handling of chemicals,” said Moure-Eraso. The 270 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the plant were in a wooden warehouse and in wooden bins, stored in a building without a sprinkler system. There are also no federal regulations that prevent this type of storage.
The CSB found other failures at the federal level. One reason that the local emergency planning committee didn’t have a plan is that regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) don’t require them for farm retail sales of fertilizer chemicals, such as the West Fertilizer plant. The EPA does have the authority to require companies that handle hazardous chemicals to use safer technologies, according to Moure-Eraso, such as using safer blends that are less explosive and keeping them in fireproof structures.
A previous ThinkProgress review of regulatory agencies also found that while seven at the state and federal level had some authority over the plant, many of which had previously fined and/or cited the company, they aren’t required to coordinate with each other and none took responsibility for regulating the amount of ammonium nitrate it had stored. But some clearly could have done better. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t inspected the plant since 1985. The EPA issued a $2,300 fine in 2006 for failure to have a risk management plan that met its standards, but it wasn’t fined after that and the plant told the EPA it didn’t pose a fire or explosive risk. Fertilizer plants are required to report to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) if they hold more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate — the West plant had 270 tons — but it failed to report it to DHS, although it did report it to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). But the DSHS didn’t share it with DHS.
The CSB found that these regulatory failures aren’t specific to West, however. It found that 1,351 facilities across the country store ammonium nitrate. “The CSB found at all levels of government a failure to adopt codes to keep populated areas away from hazardous facilities, not just in West, Texas,” CSB Supervisory Investigator Johnnie Banks said. The state has also reported that 14,000 facilities in Texas have extremely hazardous materials, with at least 44 that store 10,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based materials. There are nearly 7,000 chemical facilities across the country that pose a potential threat to populations larger than West’s.
Given the widespread nature of the problem, the CSB is calling for updates to regulations. “It is imperative that people learn from the tragedy at West,” Moure-Eraso said. It has called for the EPA exemption that doesn’t require farm retail sales of fertilizer chemicals to have emergency plans to be revoked. American standards for ammonium nitrate haven’t been updated in decades while other countries have more rigorous rules for storage and siting of nearby buildings. Although fertilizer-grade ammonimum nitrate is not currently classified as an explosive in the U.S., in 2002 the CSB recommended that it and other similar chemicals be included in safety regulations at the EPA and OSHA. But neither agency had adopted the recommendations when the West tragedy occurred. “Had regulators acted on our recommendations sooner, there would have been additional requirements for safer handling and storage, and the accident may have been prevented,” Moure-Eraso said at a press conference on Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the EPA told the New York Times that the Obama administration is working to improve safety at chemical facilities and pointed to an executive order President Obama signed in August establishing a working group to review federal chemical safety programs and make recommendations.
“Regulations need to be updated and new ones put in place,” said Moure-Eraso, adding, “it is important to note that there is no substitute for an efficient regulatory system that ensures that all companies are operating to the same high standards. We cannot depend on voluntary compliance.”
Yet there has been little appetite for action even a year after the disaster. No new regulations have even been filed at the state level, let alone passed into law. Just after the explosion, Gov. Rick Perry (R) said calls for increased regulation were “premature” and that he was comfortable with the current level of state oversight. And before it occurred, legislators had been working to weaken environmental laws and had cut the budget of one of the agencies that oversaw the plant.