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Opinion

Smoking gun in West, Texas, fertilizer blast: lack of government oversight

While the cause of the blast in West, Texas, is still undetermined, what is clear is that the West Fertilizer Company stored large quantities of reactive products in the middle of a small town with little state or federal oversight. Citizens must be empowered to act when regulators don't.

By Thomas O. McGarity / April 29, 2013

Mike Maler, right, comforts neighbor Lori Eisma when he visits her house in West, Texas, April 27. Mr. Maler's home was also destroyed by the West Fertilizer Company explosion on April 17. Op-ed contributor Thomas O. McGarity writes: 'Given the reluctance of Congress to properly fund the regulatory agencies, it may be time to give workers and neighbors the tools' to hold companies accountable.

Kye R. Lee/The Dallas Morning News/AP

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Austin, Texas

The tragic explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant April 17 is the most recent manifestation of a badly debilitated system of regulatory protections.

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Although the cause of the blast is still undetermined, what is clear is that the West Fertilizer Company stored large quantities of highly reactive products, including anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, in the middle of a small town with very little oversight from state or federal agencies. Ammonium nitrate was used by the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1995, killing 168 people. The West, Texas, explosion killed 14, and injured nearly 200.

Texas does not have an occupational safety and health program that meets federal requirements. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is therefore responsible for ensuring the safety of potentially dangerous workplaces like the West facility.

OSHA has inspected the West plant exactly once in the company’s 51-year history. That 1985 inspection detected multiple “serious” violations of federal safety requirements for which the company paid a grand total of $30 in fines. OSHA’s 1992 process-safety-management standard for highly hazardous chemicals is supposed to protect against disasters like the West explosion, but it wasn’t in place for that inspection.

Regardless, OSHA lacks the resources to undertake the kind of comprehensive inspection needed to ensure compliance with the process safety standard at small facilities like West Fertilizer Company. OSHA’s tiny staff of around 2,400 inspectors is spread so thin that it would take more than 90 years to conduct even cursory inspections of all eligible workplaces in Texas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspected the facility in 2006 and assessed a fine of $2,300 for failing to update a risk management plan, among other violations involving employee training records and maintenance. The company responded in 2011 with an updated plan stating that the “worst case release scenario” was a release of the contents of a storage tank over a period of 10 minutes; the threat of an explosion was not mentioned. The EPA  was apparently satisfied. The EPA lacks the staff to inspect any given facility more than once every decade or so.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has so few inspectors that it can only inspect small plants like the West facility in response to complaints. It inspected the West plant in 2006 in response to a complaint about bad odors, and it was satisfied when the company applied for a new permit. Inspectors weren’t focused on the risk of explosion, though the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did fine the company $5,250 that year for improperly planning to transport anhydrous ammonia.

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