West, Texas, Explosion: One Year Later, Nothing Has Changed

Categories: Environment

WestExplosionAerial.jpg
Photo by Shane Torgerson
An overhead view of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant.
In the wake of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, it's probably not surprising to learn that the disaster -- which killed at least 14, injured hundreds and gave the little North Texas town the look of a postapocalyptic war zone -- could have been avoided. That's what the U.S. Chemical Safety Board report, released Tuesday, has found.

"The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable," Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso stated. "It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it."

The CSB is a non-regulatory federal agency charged with only one agency superpower -- the right to investigate incidents like the fertilizer plant explosion. Still, CSB investigators had a hard time actually doing that last year. The Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had a larger team and took control of the explosion site along with the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office. The CSB investigators were kept out of the site for more than a month, but they still managed to investigate. What they found was less than encouraging.

At the state level, the agency found that Texas has no fire code, and thus nothing with which to instruct firemen on what to look for and how industrial companies should be handling dangerous chemicals. When the counties are small enough, Texas rules even prohibit having a fire code, crazy as that sounds.

Worse still, the CSB found that the volunteer firefighters who answered the call didn't know about the ammonium nitrate on the property or how dangerous the stuff was (most of the people who died in the explosion were firefighters). The people living around the fertilizer plant were also unaware of the fact that they were basically living on top of a potential bomb, the report found. The firefighters should have been flooding the area with water and fighting the fire from a safe distance, but they had no way of knowing that, according to the report. And the thing is, the standards for handling ammonium nitrate are lax around the country.

"The CSB found at all levels of government a failure to adopt codes to keep populated areas away from hazardous facilities, not just in West, Texas," CSB investigator Johnnie Banks said in the release. "We found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate. Farm communities are just starting to collect data on how close homes or schools are to AN storage, but there can be little doubt that West is not alone and that other communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity."

There were lots of "never again" statements made in the aftermath of the explosion -- there would be a review of the rules governing the handling of ammonium nitrate, according to the President, and there would be changes and laws made, according to lots of political types who say such things -- but in the year that has passed, not a single state or federal law has been passed.

Last year, we found out that the chemical industry is dangerously unregulated and we found out in one of the worst ways possible. But what has changed in a year? Aside from the fact that the people of West are working to rebuild, not much. Not even the laws.


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