That’s just how we roll around here.
A year after the blast killed 15 people and injured hundreds, Texas lawmakers have yet to propose or put into action any major reforms in an attempt to prevent future industrial accidents, whether it’s at a small, rural fertilizer retailer or a petrochemical plant along the Houston Ship Channel.
The disconnect reflects a state famously wary of government regulations. Even in West, about 120 miles north of Austin, some residents sound more concerned about the length of freight trains rolling through town than the absence of new rules for chemical plants.
It’s impossible to know whether stricter rules would have prevented the disaster, but some say the lack of action is putting lives in jeopardy.
“The bottom line is, there hasn’t been any effort to do things that would prevent such a tragedy in the future,” said Elena Craft, a Texas-based health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It seems wrong that lives were lost in vain.”
Key lawmakers say changes are coming, but any new regulations likely will be tailored to improve safety at the 82 facilities permitted to store and sell ammonium nitrate, the nitrogen-rich compound that was involved in the devastating blast. It’s unlikely the yet-unseen agenda will involve sweeping legislation that alters the handling of hazardous materials at all chemical plants.
“We just cannot do business the same way,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. “I want to turn the ought-to-dos into statute. But I want something that even the staunchest anti-regulation people say it’s a good idea.”
Pickett said he would like to assign authority for overseeing the handling and storage of fertilizer to one agency, most likely the state fire marshal’s office. There were eight state agencies with some oversight of the West plant or the explosion, and critics believe the patchwork regulatory approach allowed the West plant to slip through bureaucratic cracks.
For example, plant managers submitted to state and local agencies a document, known as a Tier II report, that shows how much ammonium nitrate is stored on site for sale to farmers. But no one flagged the large stockpile at the West facility, which reported in 2012 that it had at least 270 tons of the dangerously combustible chemical.
Pickett said he wants the Tier II reports to go directly to the state fire marshal’s office, which also would be responsible for inspecting facilities and instructing plant personnel on best safety practices. He also wants additional funding for training firefighters.
The Environmental Defense Fund’s Craft is skeptical about the Legislature’s willingness to produce significant reforms.
“I don’t think they see what happened in West as a real problem,” she said. “They kind of think of it as a one-off event and that it probably won’t happen again.”
Pickett also indicated a willingness to consider strengthening rules on the storage of ammonium nitrate. Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, said today that 46, nearly half, of the state’s 96 ammonium nitrate plants are housing the fertilizer in combustible wood-frame structures—just like in the West disaster. At the West fertilizer plant, the fire originated in the seed room and spread rapidly to consume the wood structure and the wood fertilizer bins.
“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” he said. Connealy said requiring sprinkler systems or, alternatively, mandating that ammonium nitrate be stored in non-combustible storage bins made of concrete, stone or metal could go a long way toward avoiding another West-like disaster.
“I still worry about the 46 that are dangerous wood structures and we have no authority right now to go in and say change ‘em,” Pickett said.
Please tell me this isn’t too much to ask. I really didn’t expect much, but surely this is doable. Right? The DMN has more.