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West Explosion Raises Regulatory Questions

As investigators search for the cause of the explosion, environmentalists said that the situation highlighted lax regulations in Texas for plants handling dangerous chemicals — especially those located near schools.

Chief of DPS Emergency Management Nim Kidd, r, answers a question on the West, TX explosion on April 18, 2013.  Left to right are TCEQ head Zac Covar, Gov. Rick Perry, Kidd and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Recovery efforts continued Friday in West, two days after the town was devastated by a fertilizer plant explosion. And as investigators search for the cause of the explosion, environmentalists said that the situation highlighted lax regulations in Texas for plants handling dangerous chemicals.

So far there are at least 14 confirmed fatalities and many of the 200 injured remain hospitalized. 

The fertilizer plant was located near several buildings, including a school, which were heavily damaged or destroyed by the blast. The plant's owner, a West resident named Donald Adair, put out a statement on Friday saying, "My heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community." As the investigation proceeds, he said, the company is "presenting all employees for interviews and will assist in the fact-finding to whatever degree possible."

Too often, fertilizer plants are located near schools, according to Neil Carman, the clean air program director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The situation “really speaks to the terrible lack of regulation we have in Texas, with highly toxic materials, explosive materials,” he said.

From 1980 to 1992, Carman served as an inspector and investigator for the predecessor to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency. He said that he had inspected some fertilizer plants, though not the one in West.

“We only went to them at most once every five years, because they were such small, insignificant” pollution sources, compared with Texas’ many huge industrial plants, he said. In situations like the one at West, it's effectively "a system of self-regulation," he said.

The TCEQ was unable to respond in time to a request for this story, but its website shows a timeline for the plant, which was built in 1962. It appears the plant was last inspected by the agency in 2007. The TCEQ's website says that it is “cooperating with other state, federal, and local authorities during emergency response as well as with subsequent investigations.”

An official with the Office of the State Chemist, which oversees a regulatory agency known as the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service, told USA Today that West was one of 592 such fertilizer facilities in the state.

The regulatory division of labor between the TCEQ and the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service is unclear. Tim Herrman, an official overseeing the feed and fertilizer service, told USA Today that his agency visits fertilizer companies “multiple times a year,” and were in the West facility “just recently.” (Efforts by the Tribune to reach officials at the office Friday afternoon were unsuccessful.)

2009 fertilizer facility fire in Bryan, Texas, caused widespread evacuations — the first in the city’s history. According to the Bryan-College Station Eagle, that fire “led more than 50 people to seek medical treatment and left the facility with an estimated $1 million worth of damages after a welder's spark ignited the ammonium nitrate stored in the warehouse.”

According to USA Today, which cited a 2012 report by the feed and fertilizer service, "West Fertilizer had two chemical-related violations and one registration violation, from September 2011, to September 2012.”

Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace in Washington, said that Texas “is certainly notorious for being behind the 8-ball in protecting the public health on industrial pollution and catastrophic risks like this."

He offered New Jersey as a comparison: There, he said, high-risk facilities are required to do an assessment of safer processes they could use — though they are not required to actually use those processes.

The Texas Chemical Council, asked for a response to environmentalists’ broad concerns about environmental regulations in Texas, said such discussions were premature.

“We will wait for officials to investigate and reach conclusions before we dignify pure conjecture with a response,” said Mike Meroney, a spokesman for the council. The Texas Chemical Council does not represent any fertilizer companies, he said.

On the federal level, Carman of the Sierra Club said that ammonia — the chemical in question in the West explosion – was “poorly regulated under the Clean Air Act.”

Hind, of Greenpeace, said that a 1990 federal law required facilities to report the quantities of dangerous chemicals on hand, but the law stopped short of requiring ways to design and operate to prevent an accidental release of the chemicals.

Carman said that the concerns were not limited to fertilizer plants. Manufacturing plants with lots of chlorine around also posed concerns, he said, since chlorine had possible “death cloud” implications. (In 2005, a New York Times opinion writer found “minimal” security at one chemical plant near Dallas that had “large amounts of deadly chlorine on hand.”)

“We really need to look at dangerous, hazardous facilities like this, no matter how small they might be, in relationship to schools and nursing homes and so forth,” Carman said. In West, the situation could have been worse if children were in school, he said.

Hind, of Greenpeace, said that the location of facilities with dangerous chemicals in urban areas was not limited to Texas. Railcars filled with chlorine can go through big cities like Detroit and Miami, he said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Texas Chemical Council spokesman. It is Mike Meroney.

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