We've all seen the video. We couldn't help watching it, how the flames were licking the sides of the building, the smoke was coming out in plumes. We watched it, knowing what was about to happen, but it still came as a surprise when the fireball erupted and the fertilizer plant in that small North Texas town, West, actually exploded.
In the wake of the blast that killed 15 people and left half a town in ruins, it turned out the fertilizer plant itself had been about as unregulated as a plant can get. Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigators hadn't inspected the plant since 1985. The Environmental Protection Agency hadn't been on the scene since 2006, when they issued a $2,300 fine for the facility, leaving the place pretty well unregulated and overlooked.
Well, that was all fine and dandy until the whole place ignited. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board tried to investigate the site in the days after the explosion, but investigators were shut out by the Justice Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators and the State Fire Marshal's Office, who pretty much destroyed the investigation site, according to CSB investigators.
The CSB isn't what you'd call a powerful agency. Created in the 1990s, the agency was given the power to investigate, but they can't issue fines or citations or even collect evidence from investigation sites. Their investigations can still pack a punch -- the report from the British Petroleum Texas City explosion resulted in a $150 million fine for BP - and then there's the fact that the board can issue rebukes. This week, the agency might actually take it's power to publicly disapprove and use it. Over the past decade, CSB investigators have advised numerous changes be made to strengthen OSHA and other regulatory agencies with power over the massive U.S. chemical industry, but none of the recommendations were ever put in place. As the cleanup continues, the CSB is getting ready to hold their annual meeting, and the agency is considering issuing a rebuke on the failure of OSHA in particular, and the Obama administration in general, to make changes that could have averted this and other disasters, or to do anything to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The independent investigative agency will consider labeling OSHA's failure to act on seven recommended moves in the past decade "unacceptable," according to Bloomberg. Despite being decidedly less than powerful, the agency does have the ability to highlight the lack of action. (Remember how all those parents started writing Facebook posts about how bad their children had been and how they were so very publicly being punished? It's kind of the government entity equivalent of that.)
And it's worth doing, from the CSB standpoint, because West was likely only a symptom of the regulatory problem. The official scolding, if it gets issued, will be aimed at the lack of safety adjustments made in chemical plants, refineries and sugar plants, Bloomberg reports. (Yeah, it turns out sugar plants are a source of concern because the dust in the plants is combustible, which is alarming for all kinds of reasons.)
The issue with that combustible dust comes from an explosion in 2003 that killed 14. The ammonium nitrate that fueled the explosion in West isn't on the list of things the CSB will push to get better regulated next week, though the patchwork regulation taking care of it for now has plenty of holes, Hillary Cohen, an spokeswoman for the board, told Bloomberg.
West isn't actually on the list of things to be dealt with because the investigation into the fire is ongoing, but the explosion put the entire regulatory system under the microscope where it's pretty difficult to ignore the regulatory holes that allowed West and other disasters to happen.
Will said potential rebuke have any real impact? Who knows, but it seems like saying something is better than saying nothing at all. We'll just have to wait and see if the folks over at CSB agree.
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