Information and comments delivered during a hearing held last week by the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee ranged from the troubling to the absurd.
The troubling testimony came from state officials charged with assessing and ensuring the safety of facilities that store and handle dangerous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer ingredient that exploded April 17 in West, killing 15 people, injuring 200 others and causing more than $100 million in property damage. The jumbled and weak regulations governing hazardous chemicals in Texas limit the ability of state officials to weigh risks to public safety.
Several striking bits of information emerged from the hearing. The state fire marshal told lawmakers that five facilities that store ammonium nitrate had refused to open their doors to fire inspectors. An official with the Texas Department of Emergency Management said a rail company wouldn’t hand over data about the dangerous chemicals it moves through Texas (the company denied the official’s claim). And an official with the Department of Insurance described fertilizer facilities’ low response rate to state queries about their level of coverage.
The testimony pointed to the inadequacy of voluntary compliance. When state officials have no authority to force an inspection, say, their only option when denied access is to meekly walk away.
Absurdity came from a few of the committee’s members. Republican state Rep. Dan Flynn of Canton uttered the quotation of the day when he urged restraint on the regulation front. Otherwise, Texas risked sliding into regulatory craziness. “If we’re not careful,” he said, “we could get like the federal government putting diapers on cows.”
We’ve never seen a diaper on a cow. But we have heard plenty of spurious claims taken as articles of faith.
The Legislature doesn’t meet again until 2015, so there will be no new laws regarding potentially explosive and dangerous chemicals until at least then. At the federal level, President Barack Obama issued an executive order Aug. 1 directing his administration to improve safety at all facilities that store ammonium nitrate. Obama assembled a group of high-level administration members and gave the group until next spring to update federal policies and improve the federal government’s coordination with state and local agencies.
A fractured and confusing collection of federal, state and local agencies govern the storage of ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals. The patchwork regulatory systems leads to duplication and inefficiency. In West, it contributed to disaster. Lawmakers averse to new regulations are correct in this way: The number of agencies monitoring facilities that store dangerous chemicals could be reduced and rules streamlined.
But huge gaps in the regulation of ammonium nitrate need to be closed. Greater authority to mandate inspections and reporting requirements should be granted state agencies.
Texas does not have a state fire code, for example. Thus the state fire marshal can’t inspect companies unless they give him permission to do so.
Perhaps the resistance to a state fire code is a reflection of state lawmakers’ respect for local control. Yet state law prohibits counties with fewer than 250,000 residents from having their own fire codes. This restriction affects 173 of Texas’ 254 counties.
The fire that caused ammonium nitrate stored at the West fertilizer plant to explode remains under investigation. The ammonium nitrate was stored in a building that had no sprinkler system because it wasn’t required to have one.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy told lawmakers his office knew of 150 facilities that store more than 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and had inspected 62 of them. While most companies had cooperated with state fire inspectors, five had refused to be inspected, he said.
A state fire code probably is a government step too far for Texas’ regulation-averse Legislature, but Connealy suggested a reasonable alternative during last week’s committee hearing: Require facilities to have a fire inspection before the state grants them a license to store ammonium nitrate.
Perhaps to some Texas lawmakers, even that modest suggestion is an overreaction to the tragedy that occurred at West. Regulations can be burdensome, but inadequate regulations burden the public with dangers, and their avoidable consequences.