Lawmakers Seek Lessons From West Explosion

A vehicle near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after an explosion in West, Texas, near Waco.
A vehicle near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after an explosion in West, Texas, near Waco.

A panel of House lawmakers on Monday agreed to join Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott in calling on President Obama to reconsider the denial of federal emergency aid to West, the small community still reeling from a fertilizer plant explosion in April that killed 15 people and destroyed several buildings. 

The decision came during a hearing of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee that chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, called a “working session” to discuss lessons from the blast. The lawmakers questioned state agency officials Monday about identifying and regulating other Texas chemical facilities, following up on testimony those agencies and others gave last month. 

Lawmakers emerged from the meeting with a set of recommendations: building a website that would allow citizens to search for chemical facilities, suggesting best practices to manage such facilities, investigating opportunities to use signs that indicate the presence of chemicals and providing safety inspections at facilities through the Department of State Health Services.

The recommendations would help first responders and the public, said Steve McCraw, the DPS director, giving them access to important information about chemical plants.

The proposed website, which could be created by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, would include a database of chemical plants across the state.

 

“We’re looking for something that is visual, quick,” Pickett said. 

The recommendations also addressed identification and management of chemical facilities in the state. Pickett suggested creating a list of “best practices that municipalities have used and offer[ing] those as suggestions” and encouraging facilities to use signs that indicate the presence of hazardous materials.

About 129 facilities in Texas have at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, said Kathleen Perkins, assistant commissioner of the regulatory services division of the Department of State Health Services. Sixteen facilities are similar to the West fertilizer plant, said State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy.

Pickett also suggested encouraging facilities to be inspected by the DSHS to ensure compliance with safety standards.

In response to questions about public safety gaps in responding to disasters like the West explosion, both McCraw and Connealy highlighted the heroism of first responders.

“At the end of the day, we’re confident local governments had an effective emergency management plan,” McCraw said. “We’ll look back and see where we can improve.” 

The lawmakers also discussed FEMA’s denial of additional recovery funds for West.

“I think it’s an aberration [to not provide aid], regardless of what they say,” McCraw said, citing similar incidents across the country. 

Perry said last week that he hoped President Obama would support the citizens of West. Abbott accused the president of having “turned his back on Texas and gone against his word." 

The committee’s letter "will be in the same theme as what the governor and the attorney general said,” Pickett said after the hearing.

Pickett said that the committee would monitor progress on the recommendations and on the community of West, adding that committee members “still haven’t worked on the insurance side.”

“We’re going to visit this again,” he said.

 

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