Officials for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released a report Tuesday that said gaps in federal and state regulations made the huge explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant possible.
"The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred," said CSB Chair Rafeal Moure-Eraso. "It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to prevent a fire and explosion, and the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify and serious hazard and correct it."
CSB members said the explosion that killed 14 people and injured 236 also caused widespread community damage and could have undocumented long-term effects on the area around the blast site.
Still, more than a year after the explosion, companies in the state can still store hazardous chemicals in flammable wooden containers in buildings without sprinklers and volunteer firefighters like those who rushed into that plant still aren't required to train how to fight such fires.
Despite investigations that have yielded new information about safety deficiencies at the plant in West and voluntary safety steps taken by the fertilizer industry, there hasn't been a single state or federal law passed since the explosion requiring change.
The federal agency has interviewed West Fertilizer Co. employees and victims of the explosion and conducted studies of how the blast occurred. A fire at the plant led to conditions that caused the detonation of up to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer component and industrial explosive.
Daniel Horowitz, the board's managing director, told The Associated Press on Monday what some other experts have also said: The plant's storage of ammonium nitrate was potentially dangerous and West's firefighters and residents didn't realize how dangerous a fire there could be.
The board's report is critical of the lack of federal and state requirements for pre-incident planning and information dissemination about ammonium nitrate facilities and storage. The report criticized "vague and inconsistent guidance for responding to AN fires" and inconsistancies with training for volunteer fire departments, which do not have the same requirements as "career" firefighters.
Chemical Safety Board Recommendations
While key questions remain unanswered, including the exact cause of the fire, "we know more than enough to keep this from happening again," Horowitz said.
He said several developments since the explosion have helped. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued guidelines for the storage of ammonium nitrate and the national industry group for fertilizer producers has created an organization that will offer voluntary inspections of U.S. dealerships.
"What we don't have at this point is any change whatsoever to federal or state mandatory codes," Horowitz said. "Without that, it's still permissible for a company to store ammonium nitrate in wooden bins. It's still permissible for ammonium nitrate to be stored near a school or a hospital."
Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy is traveling to small towns with ammonium nitrate storage facilities to discuss its safe handling and disaster preparation, and his office created a Web page where users can type in their zip codes to see if they live near a storage facility. It doesn't provide the names of facilities and has been little used thus far.
Connealy has said 46 facilities in Texas should be required to install sprinkler systems or retrofit buildings with non-combustible materials. He is working with state lawmakers on a potential bill to be considered by the Legislature when it reconvenes in January.
Texas law still prohibits small counties from adopting a fire code, and the volunteer firefighters who serve much of rural Texas are not required to obtain training on how to deal with fires like the one at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, though many of them do.
The Chemical Safety Board, which has no regulatory authority, held a separate inquiry from the main investigation led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Texas State Fire Marshal. That investigation narrowed the possible causes of the plant fire to three things -- a golf cart battery, an electrical system or a criminal act -- but didn't go further.
Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said federal, state and local agencies could all do more. He said he believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enough authority already to require companies to follow stricter guidelines.
In Texas, companies can still store hazardous chemicals in flammable wooden containers in buildings without sprinklers, and volunteer firefighters still aren't required to train how to fight such blazes.
Moure-Eraso suggested Texas could change the law to allow small counties to enact their own, and said officials in McLennan County, where West is located, could have done more to prepare an emergency response plan for the plant.
But he laid the ultimate responsibility for preventing the disaster on West Fertilizer Co.
"What the regulators do is basically monitor what is happening, but the primary responsibility has to be for whoever is putting this chemical in commerce," Moure-Eraso said. "The regulators themselves are not the ones that caused this thing."
A spokesman for the owners of the plant did not respond to a message. The owners have denied allegations that the plant was negligent in how it handled and stored ammonium nitrate.