Texas still pondering regulation, a year after West explosion

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas regulators are still trying to improve the flow of information about dangerous chemicals among state agencies and fire departments, a year after the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people.

Facilities that handle ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer that caused the damage in West, are required to file reports with the Department of State Health Services. They're also required to provide the report to local fire departments and other first responders.

The facilities have 90 days, though, to notify the state if they change the type or amount of chemicals they store. And the state Department of Public Safety doesn't have any enforcement authority if a business fails to provide the information to local departments, according to testimony at a hearing today of the Texas House of Representatives' Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

Most firefighters in Texas are volunteers and aren't required to be trained in handling hazardous materials or fighting chemical fires. At least 63 of Texas' 254 counties have facilities that handle ammonium nitrate, according to testimony.

"There have to be some changes if you want to prevent another West," state Fire Marshal Chris Connealy testified.


Of the 96 facilities in Texas that handle ammonium nitrate, 46 are built from wood -- the same as the West plant, Connealy said. The state has recommended that fertilizer be stored in concrete, stone or metal buildings, or that wooden buildings be fitted with fire sprinklers.

The committee, which is studying the state's response, may recommend narrowly tailored legislation to address the West explosion. Committee Chairman Joe Pickett (D) indicated he was interested in faster reporting of chemical information and asked how much it would cost to train all the state's volunteer fire departments.

"We've got a break in communication," Pickett said. "You're going to have to help us with that."

Pickett said he doesn't plan to introduce a bill providing for a statewide fire code but asked the fire marshal to recommend ways to address the fire hazards at fertilizer businesses.

"I still worry about those 46 [facilities] that you just mentioned that are still wooden structure, and we have no authority to go in and say 'change them,'" he said.

West Mayor Tommy Muska told GreenWire in an interview last week that a fire code could have prevented the explosion. Most cities adopt national building codes that require fire sprinklers in large commercial buildings, but those standards aren't required in rural areas in Texas.

If the plant in West had had sprinklers, "that little fire would have been doused or at least mitigated," Muska said.

"You've got a problem not only in Texas but all over the country. The same kind of plants are all over Nebraska and all over the Midwest," he said. "I just don't want this to happen to someone else."

The April 17, 2013, explosion in West involved more than 20 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at a chemical mixing plant owned by Adair Grain Inc. Although it was in an unincorporated area, the plant abutted a neighborhood in West, about 70 miles south of Dallas.

The blast, a little before 8 p.m., left a crater 93 feet wide by 10 feet deep. Fifteen people were killed and as many as 200 injured. Five of the dead were volunteer firefighters from West. Others who rushed to help died, too, including a Dallas Fire Department captain who was at a cookout nearby and four emergency workers from neighboring towns who were attending a class a few blocks from the plant.

More than 150 homes were damaged or destroyed, along with an apartment complex, a nursing home and three of the town's four schools.

The accident highlighted a string of flaws in state and federal oversight of chemicals. Ammonium nitrate's dangers were well-known -- it was one of the main ingredients in the homemade bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

U.S. EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Department of Homeland Security all regulate ammonium nitrate. OSHA last inspected the plant in the 1980s. It was fined by EPA in 2006 for failing to submit a risk management report (E&E Daily, July 29, 2013).

President Obama ordered federal agencies to create a "unified federal approach" to chemical safety. A working group is scheduled to deliver a plan to the president by May 1 (Greenwire, Jan. 6).

Separately, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has scheduled a meeting in West on April 22 to discuss its findings.

The Texas Legislature didn't pass any major bills addressing the West accident in 2013. It doesn't meet again until 2015.

West's leaders, who cherish their image as a self-reliant small town, were initially hesitant to call for more regulation. Muska said he wasn't sure that new state or federal laws would help, since the regulators failed to inspect the plant under existing laws.

The town is suing Adair Grain and two chemical manufacturers that supplied the ammonium nitrate. Its lawsuit says the manufacturers could have used additives to render the ammonium nitrate inert.

Suing people "is not my cup of tea," City Councilman Steve Vanek said last week. In this case, though, "somebody that has the money to fix it and doesn't -- I was on board with the lawsuit."

Muska and Vanek, who are also volunteer firefighters, were both on their way to the plant when the explosion happened. Both of their homes were damaged.

In the year since the explosion, more than 120 homes have been rebuilt or repaired, Muska said. Construction was under way on several houses in the blast zone last week, while others have been demolished but not replaced. Fence posts and basketball hoops at a playground near the plant are still bent from the explosion.

The West Independent School District plans to break ground this year on a new campus to replace its middle and high schools. It will be farther away from the nearby railroad tracks to reduce its exposure to any future accidents, school Superintendent Mary Crawford said. The school district's insurance company has only agreed to pay for $30 million of the $53 million in damage; Crawford said state and federal funds will be used for the rest.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed more than $35 million in West, including $25 million to repair the town's infrastructure.

"It's going to take a little time, but we're going to have a hell of a town," Vanek said.

Reporter Sam Pearson contributed.

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