Other Views: Texas, feds must improve oversight of fertilizer plants

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013 - 8:27 am

A longer version of the following editorial appeared Thursday in the Austin American-Statesman – www.statesman.com/s/opinion.

Looked at narrowly, it is true that a lack of regulatory oversight didn't cause the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West that killed 14 people, including 10 volunteer firefighters. The direct cause of the explosion was a fire that heated tons of ammonium nitrate to the point of deadly detonation.

But a muddled and fractured state and federal regulatory system allowed the conditions that led to the explosion. And measures that could have prevented the explosion were either not required or not enforced.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was in Illinois on April 22 trying to tempt companies to move to Texas in part by touting the state's freedom from vigorous regulations, told the Associated Press that spending more state money on inspections would not have prevented the explosion in West. We don't share Perry's comfort with the state's current oversight of fertilizer plants – or the federal government's.

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. was so powerful it created a crater more than 90 feet wide. It destroyed 142 homes, according to a count by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

It's unclear how much ammonium nitrate was at the West plant when it exploded, but last year the company stored 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, according to Reuters. Any amount of ammonium nitrate over 400 pounds is supposed to be reported to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The West plant did not notify the department, however, even though the amount stored last year was 1,350 times the maximum allowed before notification is required.

As the American-Statesman's Jeremy Schwartz reported in Thursday's editions, a recent report by the Homeland Security inspector general excoriated the agency for its poor planning and execution of the program that governs the secure storage of fertilizer. But the department's mandate is on secure storage, not safe storage. Further, the department relies on self-reporting for the 6,000 fertilizer depots and plants nationwide.

The blame, then, doesn't lie with Homeland Security alone. The regulatory system governing fertilizer plants is confusing, divided among a half-dozen or so state and federal agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Office of the Texas State Chemist.

Previous reporting by the American-Statesman and others points to a history of compliance problems at the West fertilizer plant. They range from moving tanks of potentially lethal liquid anhydrous ammonia without telling state authorities to venting ammonia without the proper permits. Better communication between federal and state agencies and uniform rules for the storage, reporting and inspection of ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals are needed, with agencies given the authority to impose stiff fines for violations.

Further, facilities such as the West Fertilizer Co. should be required to install sprinkler systems and blast walls. And where possible, towns where these plants are located should not allow homes, schools and businesses to be built within a certain distance of a plant.

What happened in West may not have been absolutely preventable, but it was predictable. As Richard John Smythe, a chemist with 40 years of experience investigating fires and explosions, told the Dallas Morning News: "You would think Texas would have learned its lesson" from the 1947 ammonium nitrate explosion at Texas City that killed at least 581 people. "This is not rocket science. We've had this happen so many times."

A memorial service was held Thursday in Waco for the victims of the West explosion. Their deaths can't be written off as the cost of doing business in this state. To allow a return to business as usual would dishonor their memory.

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