As search-and-rescue teams continued to look for survivors the day after a fertilizer plant explosion leveled parts of the Central Texas town of West, killing at least five people, officials were still dealing with a long list of unanswered questions. And much of the scrutiny was centered on the plant itself.
In an Austin news conference Thursday, Gov. Rick Perry and other top state officials stressed that it’s too early to draw firm conclusions about what caused the explosion.
“It’s very important to stress that at this point much of the information that we have is still very preliminary,” Perry said. “More information is coming in all the time.”
Perry said 75 homes had been affected but could not say how many had died or were injured. “I’m not comfortable giving you a number right now,” said Perry, who added that pipelines are being monitored and gas distribution has been cut off to residents.
Multiple reports say that five to 15 people were killed and more than 100 people injured by Wednesday’s explosion.
Perry is seeking a federal emergency declaration and said President Obama called him from Air Force One Thursday morning to discuss the response to the explosion. “We greatly appreciate the president for his call,” Perry said.
The plant, West Fertilizer, dates back to 1962 and had been “grandfathered” from certain environmental regulations until 2004, said Zak Covar, director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In 2006, there was a complaint made against the plant and officials determined that it did not have the proper air pollution permits, he said.
“We resolved that complaint with having the company come in and get authorized,” Covar said. “We haven’t had a complaint from that facility since 2006.’’ That means the plant hadn’t been inspected by state authorities since 2006.
Covar added that there are lots of fertilizer plants around Texas. Generally they don’t get inspected unless there is a complaint.
Among those missing in the explosion are volunteer firefighters who responded to the tragedy. Given recent state budget cuts impacting volunteer fire departments, Perry was asked if that was a wise decision and whether more funding should be provided to them in the wake of the West tragedy.
“Budgets go up and down,” Perry said. “That’s being addressed and debated as we speak in the Legislature at the present.”
Questions have also been raised about whether spraying water on the fire was the appropriate response, and if it possibly made for a combustible mix.
“A lot of people don’t like putting water and ammonium nitrate together, and I believe that was one of the chemicals that was there,” said state emergency director Nim Kidd. “I don’t think we should be second-guessing right now the actions of the first responders and whether they were applying water at the appropriate place at the appropriate time.”
In Austin and Washington, discussions are quietly beginning as to whether the disaster could or should lead to policy changes on homeland security or environmental regulation. However, with many details still unknown and the focus squarely on helping the victims, few proposals are clear-cut.
U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said in a news release Thursday that the West tragedy showed the need to refocus on the safety of industrial infrastructure. The release added that funding was "available for chemical site security standards and infrastructure protection — programs aimed at counterterrorism and public safety.“
Carter, who emphasized that his thoughts were with the victims, added, “This horrific incident — whether a result of criminality or an accident — is a reminder of the importance of such protections and that our vulnerabilities do not only reside in large cities.”
Around the Texas Capitol, some environmentalists were circumspect as to the potential regulatory impact.
“There’s not any legislation — any specific legislation — that we know about right now that would have an impact on anything like this,” said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston. He added, “We’re concerned for the victims of the tragedy, and beyond that, there’s not really much we can say.”
Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said that the West tragedy could create renewed focus on Senate Bill 957, authored by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, which environmentalists fear would make it more difficult for residents to challenge industrial permits. The bill passed out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday after a 6-3 vote.
“I would hope that the explosion gives legislators pause in deciding to weaken the permitting process, which in this case seems to have failed the people of West,” Metzger said.
Fraser’s office did not have an immediate comment. Asked about SB 957, Hector Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council, a trade association representing chemical manufacturing facilities in the state, sent a statement saying: “We are disappointed that environmental activists would exploit this horrible tragedy to advance their political agenda against pending legislation.”
Cyrus Reed, the conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said that he did not know of specific legislation that the West tragedy could impact. However, as a general matter, he said that the explosion pointed up the need to adequately fund enforcement efforts at agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Railroad Commission.
Shelley, of Air Alliance Houston, noted: “It’s routine after a tragedy like this that the state and federal agencies will go in and do testing and monitoring and make sure the air is safe for the citizens and issue advisories if they have concerns. So we should keep a lookout for that action from the state and federal government.”