When the West, Texas, fertilizer plant, where 30 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate—stored in wooden sheds without sprinkler systems and near other combustible material—caught fire, exploded and killed 15 people, including 10 emergency responders, the state of Texas had virtually no regulations governing ammonium nitrate and other hazardous chemicals. A year later, it still doesn’t.
Today marks the first anniversary of the blast at the West Fertilizer Co. that also injured nearly 300 people and destroyed more than 150 buildings, including an apartment complex, three schools, a nursing home and a hospital in the surrounding community.
Yet as The Dallas Morning News reported this week, while safety and environmental advocates and some state officials are pushing for new rules to protect communities and workers, "Industry resistance has been fierce, and state lawmakers have said they’ll have to balance any new regulations against their burden on business."
There are 74 facilities that store at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate-based explosive material, as this map from The Dallas Morning News shows. Yet Gov. Rick Perry (R) has questioned if there is even a need for new rules on ammonium nitrate.
For years the Texas AFL-CIO has sought the establishment of a state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), especially focused on industries with high-risks for disaster such as the West fertilizer plant and the petrochemical industry. But the legislation establishing a state OSHA has died in the past several legislative sessions.
Says Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moller:
The sad fact is that devastating tragedies like the one in West can in many cases be prevented. The Texas Legislature could save lives and preserve property by creating a limited state OSHA to focus on industries that are inherently dangerous to their surrounding communities if something goes wrong. All too often, we find out after a tragedy that a relatively minor expense or change in safety practice would have prevented a vast treasure’s worth of grief.
On the federal level, after the massive the explosion it was found that the Texas plant was exempt from key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and OSHA safety rules and had not been inspected by OSHA since 1985.
AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario said the deadly incident:
Revealed that the system of chemical safety regulation and oversight was totally fragmented and full of holes. Lots of hazardous chemicals are not covered by regulations and there is little oversight.
While Texas hasn’t moved on any new safety measures, the federal government is moving toward new rules on hazardous chemicals, but Seminario said it will be a long process.
In August, President Barack Obama issued an executive order for federal agencies, including OSHA and EPA, to develop new rules to address the handling and storage of industrial chemicals, such as the ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the Texas explosion. Those rules were due by Nov. 1 but, because of the Republican government shutdown last fall, they’ve been delayed.
OSHA issued two dozen citations against the company in October, along with $118,300 in penalties. The violations included exposing workers to explosion hazards and chemical burns, unsafe handling and storage of chemicals, failing to have an emergency response plan and not having an appropriate number of fire extinguishers.
At a Senate hearing in March, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), testified that the West, Texas, explosion was “preventable” and “The United States is facing an industrial chemical safety crisis.”
Time and again, he said:
We find examples where companies could have used available, feasible, safer technologies to prevent disastrous accidents, but chose not to do so.
He also told the Environmental and Public Works Committee:
These major accidents don’t have to happen. They kill and injure workers, harm communities, and destroy productive businesses. The best companies in the U.S. and overseas know how to prevent these disasters – but we need a regulatory system here that ensures all companies are operating to the same high standards.
Twelve years ago, the CSB urged EPA—which hasn’t updated its rules on ammonia nitrate since 1997—to adopt its safety recommendations for storage, handling and use of the chemicals.
On Capitol Hill, instead of pursuing new rules to protect the lives of workers and community members—remember nearly 300 residents near the fertilizer plant were injured by the blast—the Republican-controlled House is on a crusade to weaken current regulations and make it more difficult to develop new workplace safety rules.
The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards (CSS) points out that since the West explosion, several incidents involving toxic chemicals have occurred that have killed workers, injured community residents, contaminated drinking water and forced the evacuation of entire towns. In the year since the explosion, said the CSS:
Congress has introduced anti-regulatory bills that would weaken our nation’s system of protection, potentially leading to more disasters and hardship for the American people. And many crucial regulations that would protect lives—from food safety rules mandated by Congress to long-overdue standards curbing water pollution from power plants—have been stalled for years.
With neither the state of Texas nor Congress making moves to protect workers and communities from the next disaster like West, Texas, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:
The only way Texas, and the country as a whole, will become more responsive to the needs of society as a whole is if America’s working people band together to demand better. The single human innovation with the best track record of protecting working people is the union, and as we continue to invest in organizing workers in Texas, we will help make Texas work better for all Texans, not just the 1% who profit from the chaos of an unfettered market.
(Photos of memorial service and blast aftermath courtesy of Getty Images).