West Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

May 1, 2013 — The deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas on April 17 has renewed focus on the dangers of of chemical storage facilities in the United States. Lawmakers in Texas and the House of Representatives are expected to press investigators and regulators for answers about the explosion, which killed 15 people and injured 200.

Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, who is leading the investigation, said the investigation could be complete by May 10. He is scheduled to testify before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committees, as well as officials from other state agencies.

Governor Rick Perry has stated that the disaster would not have been prevented if the state had spent more money on inspections. According to the Houston Chronicle, no state agency had the legal authority to inspect and enforce safety measures at the plant.

However, West Fertilizer has been fined for safety violations. The last time West Fertilizer Company was inspected was in 2011, when the company was fined $10,000 for failing to safely transport tanks of liquid anhydrous ammonia. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the company $2,300 for failing to update its risk management plant. The emergency response plan stated there was “no” risk of fire or explosion. West Fertilizer has also been cited for venting ammonia into the air without necessary permits.

House Democrats have signaled that they will be looking into federal workplace safety laws and inspections of facilities that handle ammonia fertilizers. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Joe Courtney (D-Conn) wrote:

“The fact that the Texas plant was located across the street from a middle school, a large apartment complex, and a nursing home, and near a high school makes it particularly worrisome that it was not being inspected more frequently by OSHA or the EPA.”

OSHA, the federal agency tasked with inspecting American workplaces to ensure safety, had not inspected West Fertilizer since 1985. OSHA operates on a philosophy of “voluntary compliance” where businesses are expected to regulate themselves. In the unlikely event of an inspection, they might be fined several thousand dollars. However, the cost of an OSHA fine is frequently less than the cost of compliance.

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