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toxic disaster because outdated and haphazard zoning has allowed homes, apartments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.
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