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Texas Explosion: Is Lax Regulation to Blame?

The devastation left by the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion is beyond extensive. Today is the first day that residents are being allowed back into the area after the blast that killed 14 and injured more than 200. What caused the April 17 explosion is still not known, but a clearer and more disturbing picture is coming out concerning the plants past inspection history. 

Last week I wrote an article about the plant, specifically about our lack of interest to demand more frequent inspections and accountability by businesses when workplace accidents happen, as they do with an alarming frequency. Now that the investigation into how the explosion happened is underway we are finding out some alarming facts.

The plant had 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia (anhydrous meaning without water) on site. In its 2011 risk report to the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) the West Fertilizer Co. claimed it presented no fire or explosive risk. Since 1921 there have been 17 unintended fatal explosions involving this kind of chemical compound. Ammonium Nitrate is highly flammable in its raw state and its cousin, anhydrous ammonia, is used by many American fertilizer plants because of its low cost. Anhydrous ammonia is hygroscopic, which means it will attract to the mucus membranes of the body and is extremely attracted to water. 

Why would the plant not list 54,000 pounds of highly flammable ammonia in a report to the EPA? Mother Jones indicates that the EPA does not list anhydrous ammonia as a flammable gas. That however, doesn’t seem to fit in with an accident prevention manual I found on the subject. Airing on the wonky side of things here, Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations says that all facilities who contain more than the threshold quantity of a regulated substance must develop an accident prevention program an emergency response program. Those programs — depending on the facility — are subject to three various kinds of responses, but all of those responses should have included guidelines for flammable materials. The threshold quantity for anhydrous ammonia is 10,000 pounds. Based off of the manual, there is no reason why the West Texas Plant Co. should not have had or submitted to the EPA protocols for a worst case scenario involving an explosion or fire. Instead, the plant reported that its worst case scenario would involve an unintentional release of ammonia gas over 10 minutes. In the plants Tier II reports to local fire departments, they failed to make mention of the 270 tons of ammonia in all but one year they submitted reports. In 2012, the company suddenly reported having 270 tons of ammonia. This should have, at the very least called for some response by local disaster response officials. They also failed to disclose the amount of ammonia housed on site to the Department of Homeland Security. 

The agency largely responsible for investigating the plant is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The commission had investigated the plant seven times for complaints concerning odors, violation of environmental law, and permit compliance. The director of the TCEQ, Zak Covar said that companies do not normally get inspected unless there are complaints against them. The budget of TCEQ has been slashed 40% since 2008. 

What about the role of other environmental or federal safety agencies in this? Well, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last inspected the plant in 1985. At that point, the plant was fined a whopping $30 for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia. OSHA is severely understaffed and its regulation and fines are woefully insufficient. It would take OSHA more than 130 years to inspect every workplace in the United States. If inspections do happen, they are often rushed and inspectors are encouraged to not get “bogged down in the minutia of complex cases.” Attempts by Congress to increase OSHA penalties and protections have been repeatedly shot down by US business interests. 

The United States workplace fatality is six times that of the United Kingdom. There are nearly 5,000 deaths on the job and 50,000 deaths which are the direct result of workplace injury per year. It’s time that these deaths, injuries, and accidents stop being invisible.

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