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Report: Not Enough Done Since West Explosion

The Texas Legislature’s efforts to beef up state oversight and avert deadly disasters like the 2013 West fertilizer plant explosion have been “not entirely adequate,” the federal Chemical Safety Board says in its final report.

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

The Texas Legislature’s efforts to beef up state oversight and avert deadly disasters like the 2013 West fertilizer plant explosion have been “not entirely adequate,” the federal Chemical Safety Board says in its final report on the disaster.

The 265-page report, released Thursday, describes in extensive detail every misstep leading to the disaster nearly three years ago that killed 15 people — mostly first responders — and injured more than 260 in the tiny, Czech-settled town of West. The accompanying list of recommendations — targeting agencies at every level of government along with professional organizations and the fertilizer plant owners — is extensive and reveals that any inaction to prevent future ammonium nitrate-related catastrophes has not been limited to the state Capitol. 

Many of the safety board's recommendations are for federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration, despite an executive order already issued by President Obama that such entities improve safety at facilities handling the explosive material. 

The West disaster "is one of the most destructive explosions ever investigated by the CSB,” safety board chairwoman Vanessa Allen Sutherland said in a statement. The safety board “found that limited regulatory oversight, poor hazard awareness, inadequate emergency planning, and the proximity of the facility to nearby homes and other buildings all led to the incident’s severity.”

Whether the report will result in any changes is questionable, however. The safety board has the power to investigate chemical accidents but has no enforcement authority.

The report found that 83 percent of the 40 facilities in Texas that store fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate still are located within a quarter mile of a residence. The statistics are similar for other states, it noted, warning of future disasters across the nation absent further action.

The April 17, 2013 catastrophe in West began with a fire at the locally owned Adair Grain and West Fertilizer Company and ended with a massive explosion that leveled a substantial portion of the small town 18 miles north of Waco on Interstate 35. Dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a nursing home, the town’s intermediate school and the fertilizer depot itself were destroyed or severely damaged.

Volunteer firefighters responding to the blaze were unaware that the ammonium nitrate stored inside could explode, and lacked training on how to handle such hazardous materials, the safety board report concluded, going on to recommend further training. If the incident had occurred during the day, when school was in session, hundreds of people likely would have died, the safety board found.

The exact cause of the explosion was never identified, although state fire investigators pinpointed either arson or faulty electrical systems. Several lawsuits against the plant are still pending. 

Despite the death and devastation, Republican state lawmakers have been skeptical of imposing additional regulations on the fertilizer industry or making other changes to protect the public.

After West, some legislation passed authorizing fire officials to inspect ammonium nitrate facilities and fine them as much as a few thousand dollars if they found hazards. But more substantial bills filed by Democrats never gained traction, including one that would have imposed penalties for improper storage of ammonium nitrate and created a rule-making authority on ammonium nitrate facilities. 

The changes to state law so far are “important first steps in recognizing the potential catastrophic hazards of (fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate) under certain conditions,” the safety board report says. “However, they are not entirely adequate.”

One bill passed last year, House Bill 942, “simply codified existing state hazardous chemical reporting requirements," rather than strengthening them, according to the report, which is dedicated to the 15 people who died in the West explosion.

State agencies and entities targeted in the report include the Texas Department of Insurance, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection, the State Firefighters’ and the Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas. 

The safety board will present its finding to the public Thursday evening in Waco. 

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