Five years after the fatal explosion of the West Fertilizer plant exposed wide gaps in oversight of chemical facilities, it appears the disaster won’t result in significant federal reforms or regulatory overhaul.
The Environmental Protection Agency has announced proposed rules that will not include many of the Obama administration regulations the agency had proposed in the wake of the explosion, which would have required “user-friendly” information sharing with the public on chemical risks and accidents; the hiring of independent auditors to ensure companies conduct proper risk management planning; and the evaluation of “safer technology and alternatives.”
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the revised rules announced Thursday would save taxpayers $88 million per year by reducing “unnecessary regulatory burdens.”
But West Mayor Tommy Muska said the rollback of regulations was unwarranted and dangerous.
“With all due respect to Scott Pruitt, he’s never lost 15 firefighter friends,” Muska told the American-Statesman. “I’m as pro-business as anyone, but some things are way, way, way more important than too much regulation, and that includes the safety of these chemical plants.” The April 17, 2013, blast killed 15 people, injured more than 150 and left part of the small town in ruins.
Stored ammonium nitrate — an explosive compound that can be used as fertilizer — “is a bomb,” he said. “It’s dangerous.” Even before Thursday’s decision, the EPA had not acted on a U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommendation to regulate ammonium nitrate under the EPA’s risk management program.
Several industry groups applauded the move. The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, whose vice president was on hand for Pruitt’s signing of the proposed rule, said the action had resolved their “major concerns.”
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge called the new rules “another victory for common sense over environmental radicalism and is a good example of the Administration listening to and properly responding to the valid concerns of multiple states.”
Those states include Texas, which was one of 11 states that asked the EPA to freeze the Obama-era changes last year, arguing that the proposal to make chemical information more readily available to the public could result in that information falling “into the wrong hands.”
Texas has made few changes since the blast. One exception is a 2015 law that allows state and local fire marshals to inspect facilities that store ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer ingredient that exploded in West, killing 15 and destroying dozens of buildings. After the blast, the fire marshal sought to inspect other facilities in the state, but at least five facilities refused to let investigators enter.
The state fire marshal’s office now performs inspections on agribusinesses that store ammonium nitrate once a year, said Jerry Hagins, spokesman for the agency. The fire marshal’s office estimates there are between 30 and 40 such sites in Texas.
The law also requires facilities to store ammonium nitrate at least 30 feet from combustible materials and file reports detailing their ammonium nitrate with local fire chiefs.
Texas officials said the EPA action wouldn’t affect the state’s efforts.
State regulations enacted in 2015 “went far, but didn’t go far enough,” Muska said. “It was a good compromise between the business sector and safety.”
The state did not require facilities to adopt fire protection standards. And Texas law prohibits counties with less than 250,000 residents, which are home to most of the state’s ammonium nitrate facilities, from adopting local fire codes that could require sprinklers, which were among the initial recommendations from the state fire marshal’s office.
Texas has also made it even harder for the public to learn about the potential hazards of chemical plants in their neighborhoods. In 2014, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion declaring so-called Tier II reports, which provide basic chemical information and were previously available through formal records requests, to be “confidential” because of concern they could be used for terrorism purposes.
The issue re-emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, when the Arkema chemical plant outside of Houston exploded, leaving many first responders ill. Even as the stricken plant burned, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality refused to release the Tier II reports, citing the 2014 opinion.
Residents and first responders have filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging they were not adequately warned about the potential dangers of the plant’s chemicals.
First responders made up the bulk of the casualties in the West blast and local officials have said members of the West volunteer fire department weren’t properly warned about the dangers awaiting them at the fertilizer plant.
The International Association of Firefighters, a Washington-based labor union, had endorsed the Obama administration proposals, writing to the EPA last year that “(f)urther delay would potentially endanger not only the public, but the lives of fire fighters responding to incidents at chemical facilities,” according to Bloomberg News.
Today there’s little evidence of the explosion in West, which reached a $10 million settlement with the plant’s owner and supplier in February. The fertilizer facility lot remains vacant, tied up in litigation, Muska said. He said the city is hoping the property owners donate it to the city for an industrial park.
This summer, city officials will dedicate a memorial in a city park just across the railroad tracks from the vacant facility lot. It will include a memorial circle, a water feature and an eternal flame, Muska said. It will also include granite stones to commemorate the dead.
“If we don’t regulate this, it will happen again,” he said. “I don’t want any mayor to have to go through what I had to go through, and the loss that people in this town had to go through.”