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As West Continues to Rebuild, Agencies Focus on Making Changes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency next week will complete its assessment of damage from an April fertilizer plant explosion in West. As the city continues to recover, state agencies are implementing changes to further ensure safety.

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WEST — Nicky and Robert Lednicky had their future figured out.

The couple, each approaching 80 years old, planned to spend their remaining years in the West Rest Haven nursing home. But everything changed on April 17, when a West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion killed 15 people and devastated this Central Texas town.

The nursing home was among the buildings destroyed by the explosion. So the Lednickys turned their attention toward their own home, which was heavily damaged. They had to take on a new loan to rebuild the home, which is expected to be ready in time for Christmas.

"We have to extend our life to pay off a loan. We'll make it. We're determined,” Robert Lednicky said. For 37 years, the Lednickys lived 1,200 feet from the plant, and they never knew what was stored there.

"There needs to be changes,” Robert Lednicky said. “And I'd like to see them in my lifetime. I don't think I have that many years left before they do anything about it."

Five months after the explosion, West continues to rebuild and its residents are on the slow and difficult road to recovery. And in Austin, state agencies are starting to implement recommendations to help ensure safe practices at facilities that hold such potentially dangerous materials.

In May, a panel of lawmakers, looking to see what went wrong, heard testimony from officials at state agencies tasked with overseeing different aspects of the state’s chemical facilities.

The panel learned that local authorities have the most control over the plants that lie within their jurisdictions.

No statutory changes resulted from the hearing. But several recommendations made a month later — after the state fire marshal ruled the cause of the explosion “undetermined” — are in the works and will gradually roll out.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is in the process of setting up meetings with officials in the rail industry to discuss the “best way to instantly identify the whereabouts of railcars containing hazardous chemicals,” spokesman Tom Vinger said.

Vinger said DPS and the Texas Department of Emergency Management continue to work with other agencies to improve emergency planning and response through training and exercises.

State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said that his office is compiling a list of all the facilities in Texas that store 10,000 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate. That information is scheduled to go online in November in the form of a searchable public database.

Connealy said the scope of the database’s information would be limited for security reasons. Once the database is online, people can enter their ZIP code to see if there is a facility in that area. The database will give the facility’s general location and include the local fire department for the interested party to get more information.

Connealy said that he and his staff are performing voluntary inspections of the 121 facilities to ensure best practices.

Without a state fire code, the fire marshal must get permission from each plant operator before the staff can go in to ensure best practices.

That leaves it up to some local jurisdictions to adopt fire codes. Not every county can do that under state law. Only counties with populations of 250,000 or more, and those adjacent to a county of that size, are able to adopt a fire code.

Connealy said that McLennan County, which includes West, could adopt a fire code because it neighbors Bell County, which exceeds the population requirement. But McLennan hasn’t done so.

The state fire marshal’s office is also verifying that there are regular meetings of the 270 local committees created by the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know-Act of 1986 to plan for chemical plant emergencies and provide information to the public.

Under the act, chemical plants are required to submit inventories of hazardous chemicals on site and their health effects to the Department of State Health Services. Once the fire marshal’s reports are in, DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said the agency gets a copy to verify that it matches up with what’s actually on site.

To date, all but three facilities have complied with the fire marshal’s request for inspection.

Connealy said that the purpose of the inspections is to confirm that proper safety features and mechanisms are in use. He said he’s talking to plant operators about installing sprinkler systems and isolating hazardous materials as steps that “will go a long ways to preventing another West.”

The April explosion damaged roughly 300 homes. About 115 had to be demolished, and 40 of those are currently in some phase of reconstruction.

"We've come a long, long way in five months," West Mayor Tommy Muska said.

Muska said the City Council has adopted new building codes and zoning changes to prevent a future facility like West Fertilizer Co. from operating near residential areas.

Soon, West will begin seeing federal help to repair the damage to the city’s infrastructure — water, roads and pipes — as the Federal Emergency Management Agency is set to complete its assessment Oct. 3.

But Muska's focus is on the mental health of the people in his community.

“There's a lot of people that are still living with mom and dad. They're living with the kids. They're still displaced,” said Muska, who marveled at the resiliency of the residents.

“They're taking it in stride,” Muska said. “They're a very faith-based group of people."

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