Report: Basically Nothing Has Changed Since West Fertilizer Blew Up

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After the West Fertilizer Plant explosion on April 17, 2013, there were many promises to change things, to ensure that something so horrific would never happen again, to alter our rules and our systems so that dangerous chemicals like ammonium nitrate would be properly stored and squirreled away only in places where the stuff could do as little harm as possible.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order on improving chemical safety and storage, while every local, state and federal agency that could conceivably come up with a reason to be there conducted an investigation into the mess.  

Now, almost three years after the explosion that killed 15 people, injured more than 250 and flattened half a town, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has come out with its final report on the matter. And its findings, based on almost three years of work, indicate that in the aftermath of West, nothing much has changed. The final report is a 265-page tome dedicated to those killed by the blast. 

The CSB is strictly an investigatory agency — CSB officials don't have the ability to issue fines or cite companies for regulatory infractions or anything like that — which is why the CSB investigators usually get incredible access to the sites of these horrific disasters when they occur. (As we've pointed out recently, it's never a question of if such things will happen but rather where and when.) While the CSB initially had a hard time gaining access to the West Fertilizer Plant explosion site, the investigators ultimately dug in and got the job done.

The report takes us through the April 2013 disaster, starting from the moment signs of fire were spotted at West Fertilizer Plant at about 7:30 that night. About 20 minutes later, at 7:51 p.m., there was an enormous blast, as between 80,000 pounds and 120,000 pounds of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate ignited, just as volunteer firefighters were arriving on the scene. The CSB report offered up three scenarios for how the explosion could have happened without singling any particular one out as the actual cause of the explosion. 

"CSB found several shortcomings in federal and state regulations and standards that could reduce the risk of another incident of this type," the report states. Then it goes on to list the agencies that could improve their regulations and standards. It's not a short list. CSB found the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection and the State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas all lacking in standards and regulations. 

The report finds fault with just about every agency involved in regulating, controlling and handling the chemicals, and advocates new standards and a new type of training to teach people how to properly handle ammonium nitrate. So, despite the deaths and the injuries and all those vows that were made that this should never happen again, Texas and the federal government have done next to nothing to actually prevent such a thing from happening again, according to the CSB report. 

Unfortunately, that's not surprising in the least since that's just kind of how we do things around here. After all, it's been a little more than a week since the death of a contract worker at PeroxyChem, it's been a little more than a year since the deaths at DuPont's La Porte facility in November 2014, it's been just about a decade since the 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers at the then-British Petroleum-owned Texas City Refinery and it's been almost 16 years since the accident at the refinery in 2004 that killed Kathryn Rodriguez's father. Thus the revelation that the CSB has found that nothing has changed in three years isn't likely to get much reaction from us. We'd have been more shocked if they'd reported that anything had changed. 

And to top it all off, we still allow companies to store thousands of pounds of ammonium nitrate right under the nose of the public. The report goes on to point out there are currently 19 locations in Texas — not named in the report — where such a catastrophe could happen again. And not just from the standpoint of the amount of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate stored in an area, but also because these 19 locations all store about 10,000 pounds of the stuff and are all located within half a mile of a church, a school or a nursing home. The board concluded there has been only limited improvement in the rules governing the storage of the fertilizer chemical since the blast.  

CSB members will be in Waco on Thursday to discuss their findings during a public forum. 

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