Chemical Safety Board Investigation on West Explosion Blocked
In the wake of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, the folks over at the Chemical Safety Board got their team together and headed to Texas to start the process of sifting through the massive pile of rubble at the blast site to try and figure out what actually happened on April 17 when the fertilizer explosion killed 15 and injured more than 200 -- because that's pretty much what the CSB was created to do.
The thing is, the CSB -- a non-regulatory agency that specializes in investigating this exact kind of thing -- was locked out of the investigation by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which had a larger team and took control of the explosion site along with the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office.
They controlled the site for a month and altered or removed "almost all relevant physical evidence from the site," CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso states in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. (Yep, the CSB is so angry they've actually gone to Congress on this.)
And we're not talking a little bit of rearranging of the blast site. Claiming control of everything from the site to the witnesses CSB investigators were trying to interview, the folks at the Justice Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators and the State Fire Marshal's Office went in and pretty much destroyed the investigation site, he says.
They used cranes, bulldozers and a bunch of other digging-stuff-up gear to change the site while looking for -- and failing to find -- the ignition source for the fire. Moure-Eraso also complains in his letter that they allowed company papers to blow away, and the Justice Department and the State Fire Marshal's Office did pretty much the worst job ever of actually preserving the site, Moure-Eraso said.
The CSB has been trying to get the right to collect evidence for its investigations, making its last request in 2007, according to The Dallas Morning News, but has never won that right, so if law enforcement wants to keep the agency off the site, out of their records and generally in the dark, there's not much CSB can do.
Which is kind of alarming because so far, the criminal investigation has failed to figure out what caused the fire that sparked the blast. That's a problem in and of itself, but there are a lot of places that store the stuff that made half the little town of West look like an atomic bomb had been dropped on it, and it kind of has a history of exploding (Texas City, 1947.) Also, the CSB investigators may not have the powers of the regulatory agencies, but their investigation into the other Texas City explosion (BP, 2005) resulted in the company being fined $50 million for unlawful polluting that ultimately caused an explosion that killed 15 people. So this isn't their first investigative rodeo.
The ATF agents and the people from the State Fire Marshal's Office have ruled that the fire might have been started by faulty electric wiring, arson or a spark from a golf cart. Both agencies said in statements that they attempted to cooperate with CSB, but noted that criminal investigation comes first, according the DMN. (Even if they've already destroyed the crime scene, as CSB claims.)
Based on their statements, it doesn't seem as if the agencies have any intention of letting CSB investigators in any time soon. Because the more time passes, the more evidence there is to gather at a scene, right? (No. Totally negative. According to every crime show ever, that is not how this works.)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.