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After West Explosion, Other Chemical Stockpiles Come Under Scrutiny

As state and federal regulators analyze the patchwork of policies governing the fertilizer plant that exploded in West, the incident has prompted a closer look at communities that lie near stockpiles of chemicals.

By Chris Hooks, The Texas Tribune, and Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
The Gavilon facility in Amarillo sits near residences. Officials say that the ammonium nitrate on site is stored safely, so that it cannot explode.

NEW BRAUNFELS — Off a dirt road connected to ever-flowing Interstate 35, a little metal sign on a wooden fence is the only indication of what lies ahead. Nearby, Buckley Powder, a mining and construction supply company, stores large quantities of ammonium nitrate, the source of the explosion at a fertilizer depot that killed at least 14 people and injured hundreds more last month in West.

In 2012, according to state records, Buckley Powder had as much as 90,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate in bins at this Central Texas plant — stored, according to Howard Wichter, Buckley’s chief financial officer, under conditions in which “nothing can happen to it.”

At a Country Fare restaurant tucked inside a truck stop not far from the bins, Lisa Slickerman, a waitress, said people who lived in the community nearby knew little about what was stored at the plant, but perhaps should have, especially after the West explosion.

“Nobody talks about it,” she said.

“I thought they just sold rocks and dirt,” another waitress chimed in.

The facility is one of more than 110 across the state that report storing 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate or more at a time. Some companies hold it in powder form, like the depot in West, which in 2012 reported storing 540,000 pounds of the chemical. Others store it in a liquid solution, which is a much less volatile form, said Charles Mitchell, a professor of soil sciences at Auburn University.

The responsibility for overseeing these facilities varies. Some, like Buckley, which supplies materials used for blasting at rock quarries and construction sites, are inspected by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Others, like Adair Grain, which owned the West storage site, are subject to inconsistent scrutiny by a long list of state and federal agencies, said Neil Carman, director of the clean air program at the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club.

As the authorities continue to investigate the cause of the West explosion, and state and federal lawmakers discuss whether new regulations and greater oversight are needed, stockpiles of chemicals stored in communities across the state are the subject of intense concern.

A patchwork of regulations, generated by municipal, state and federal authorities, has led to almost exclusively local control over disaster preparation. “If I have a plant near my house, do I know that they have a plan?” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. “The public needs to know who to go to and who to ask for a plan, so it brings attention to these facilities.”

“It’s just ludicrous. I think it’s a pattern of lax regulation in Texas," Carman said, "and it’s surprising, given the number of industrial plants.”

At the federal level, safety and accident prevention falls to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which according to an agency fact sheet oversees more than seven million workplaces and last inspected the West depot in 1985. The Environmental Protection Agency requires companies to report their methods of handling certain dangerous chemicals, but not ammonium nitrate. And the Department of Homeland Security keeps track of facilities that hold ammonium nitrate, but the agency did not know about the West facility, which had not reported to it. According to a department spokesman, Peter Boogaard, the agency is currently investigating whether the West facility should have submitted documentation of its ammonium nitrate.

At the state level, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality focuses on pollution and air quality, not accident prevention. The Office of the State Chemist checks the composition of feed and fertilizer for consumers, and whether explosives are behind fences and locked doors. The primary responsibility for tracking potentially dangerous chemicals in Texas falls to the Department of State Health Services, but Commissioner David Lakey told lawmakers at a hearing this month that the agency did “not have authority related to the regulation of these chemicals.” Its role is as a data depository, Lakey said, suggesting that regulations are the responsibility of local officials like fire chiefs and city councils in the form of fire and safety codes.

Those local officials are also responsible for preparing communities for disaster prevention, Steve McCraw, the director of the state’s Department of Public Safety, testified at the same hearing. “There’s no orchestrated, overarching effort to educate people about what’s in their areas,” he said. “It’s local level, not state down.”

McCraw’s department oversees a statewide network of 270 local emergency-planning committees, which operate differently in every county, and bring together public officials and industry leaders to develop safety plans. “The best experts are on the ground,” said W. Nim Kidd of who oversees emergency management for the DPS.

Amarillo knows the importance of local involvement in disaster planning firsthand. High on the Texas plains, the city is home to several heavy industry and petrochemical facilities — including the largest repository of ammonium nitrate in the state — and has adapted to the risk. The city’s fire department includes a hazmat team, which drills to prepare for specific threats. Sonja Gross, a community relations coordinator for the city, said the regional planning committee met quarterly to work on disaster preparation and prevention.

A fertilizer depot in the northeast quadrant of the city, owned by the multinational company Gavilon, reported an average daily stockpile of more than 2.1 million pounds of a liquid ammonium-nitrate mixture in 2012.

The fertilizer at the Gavilon facility is stored as a liquid with the organic chemical urea, which experts say ordinarily poses little combustion risk. But while the solution is much safer than ammonium nitrate stored in a powder form, explosions at similar facilities — as a consequence of spills or misused equipment — are not unheard of.

In Amarillo, as in New Braunfels, many who live in the industrial area near the fertilizer facility say they had no idea about the chemical stockpile next door and are concerned, even if the risks were comparatively low.

“They should have let us know" in some way, said Judy Watson, manager of the Red Rock Saloon, a bar down the street from the plant. “A lot of people live here. A lot of homeless people sleep here, too.”

The neighborhood isn’t unfamiliar with industrial accidents; in March, a warehouse containing propane tanks — less than a third of a mile from the Gavilon facility — erupted in flames when an employee spilled flammable liquid near an open-flame portable heater, according to the Amarillo Fire Department. Casey Essery, who lives on the same block as the warehouse, recalled watching the crackling flames multiply from his house.

But many are pragmatic about the risks. David Bernhardt, the owner of the Adult Video Gallery at the Paramount, across the street from the Gavilon depot, said he was unfazed by the tanks’ presence: “It’s one of those things that comes with being in an industrial part of town.”

An appreciation for the benefits and hazards of industry may explain why some, including state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, remain reluctant simply to call for more oversight of Texas’ industrial facilities.

“In our part of the state, because it’s been very heavy in oil and gas production and plastics and fertilizers,” Seliger said, "a lot of lessons have been learned” on the importance of setting and enforcing regulations to ensure safe practices.

In New Braunfels, home of Buckley Powder, Lynn Lindsay, the local emergency-management coordinator, said Comal County’s committee had little financing and did not meet regularly. “We are actively working to rectify the situation,” said Lindsay, who is also a courthouse administrator. “We have active relationships with first responders, but it’s a matter of tying it all together.”

Lindsay said New Braunfels residents had expressed more concerns since the West explosion, and he is trying to develop a database of chemicals in facilities across the county so first responders know what to do in case of an emergency.

He said the Legislature could consider creating standards for reporting or directing an agency to list best practices for first responders.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said there was “a point at which you can overregulate” companies that store dangerous chemicals and that many large manufacturing companies have their own emergency preparation plans.

“I think we’re doing a good job,” she said. “Just periodically something happens that’s not predictable.”

And whether heightened public disclosure will happen is already a subject of debate. "I have the right to know where these chemicals are in my community,” Rep. Pickett said at a recent hearing. "But 9/11 happened, and there’s a balance. I understand that.”

Brandi Grissom, John Jordan, and Ryan Murphy contributed to this report.

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