Committee calls for quicker action following West, Texas, plant blast

By Robert Arnold, Investigative Reporter, rarnold@kprc.com
Published On: Jun 27 2013 05:12:38 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 27 2013 06:31:05 PM CDT

June 27, 2013: At least one federal agency believes the devastation and loss of life at the West Fertilizer plant was preventable. Robert Arnold reports.

HOUSTON -

At least one federal agency believes the devastation and loss of life at the West Fertilizer plant was preventable.

The Chairman of the Chemical Safety Board told a Senate Committee that if recommendations put forth years ago had been adopted and followed, it may have identified potential hazards at the facility before the April explosion that claimed 15 lives.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works heard testimony Thursday from industry experts and federal regulators regarding the explosion at the West Fertilizer plant.

"We must look at why these tragedies and others occur," said Committee Chair, California Senator Barbara Boxer. "Lives are at stake and action must be taken now."

Much of the testimony revolved around preliminary findings from the Chemical Safety Board.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso blamed a "patchwork" of regulatory oversight for not catching potential hazards at the plant.

"A patchwork that has many large holes," said Moure-Eraso.

Moure-Eraso pointed out how large amounts of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate were stored at West in wooden containers near other combustible materials with no firewall protection or sprinklers.

Moure-Eraso explained there are nationally accepted fire codes regarding the storage of ammonium nitrate, but that those codes are not mandatory.

"So at West these fire code provisions were strictly voluntary and West Fertilizers had not volunteered," said Moure-Eraso.

A deputy administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency bore the brunt of the committee's displeasure.

Barry Breen was questioned as to why the EPA does not require facilities like West to include chemicals like ammonium nitrate in federally required risk management plans. 

Local 2 Investigates reported in April the most recent risk management plan filed with the EPA by West did not list fire or explosion as a potential risk at the plant.

Moure-Eraso pointed out to the committee that the CSB recommended the EPA update this requirement 10 years ago.

Boxer appeared irritated when Breen indicated the EPA did not believe the CSB's 2002 recommendation on this point was clear cut.

"Please answer the question, what's your time frame?" said Boxer.

"In order to establish your time frame we need to understand the issue," said Breen, deputy administrator for the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

A professor from Texas A & M university also told the committee the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does require facilities like West to store ammonium nitrate separately from other combustible materials. 

However, Local 2 reported OSHA records show West had not been inspected by the Administration since 1985.

The State Fire Marshal's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are still investigating what started the fire at West Fertilizer.

Investigators say on old golf cart, an electrical system or arson are all possible causes.

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