Fertilizer Plant Explosion Reveals Regulatory Flaws

Fertilizer Plant Explosion Reveals Regulatory Flaws

A week after the explosion at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas killed at least 15 people and destroyed homes and buildings - including a nursing home and a middle school - within a five-block radius, authorities still didn't know exactly what caused the blast. What they did know, however, was that despite being subject to regulation by seven separate agencies - the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service - the West plant hadn't received a thorough safety inspection since 1985, even though its owners had been fined $5,250 after the facility's last partial inspection in 2011. 
One of the reasons for that lapse is apparently that some of the regulating agencies set their inspection priorities based on what plant operators self-report about potential hazards at their facilities. The West plant filed a "worst-case release scenario" report with the EPA and local officials indicating there was no risk of fire or explosion at the facility, so it wasn't considered a priority. 
The owners also evidently failed to notify the Department of Homeland Security that the plant held more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate - the same chemical Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 - as required by law. The plant actually held 270 tons of the substance. And although it had filed a report indicating that fact with the Department of State Health Services, the agency didn't pass along that information to Homeland Security because it isn't required to do so. 
The EPA and other federal agencies also don't control how close nursing homes, schools or population centers can be to such facilities. In Texas, that decision is up to local zoning authorities. And a 2008 investigation by The Dallas Morning News warned that Dallas County residents were "at risk of a toxic disaster because outdated and haphazard zoning has allowed homes, apartments and schools to be built within blocks - in some cases even across the street - from sites that use dangerous chemicals." 
The EPA, OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are all now investigating the accident. But it could be some time before they come to any conclusions. The CSB has yet to complete its investigation of an explosion that killed seven workers at an oil refinery in the state of Washington three years ago or of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. (PROPUBLICA)

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