Last year’s explosion at a chemical fertilizer plant in rural Texas that killed 14 people and injured more than 200 makes a strong case for the importance of government oversight and regulation. Nothing may change in proudly anti-regulation Texas but there are lessons to be learned.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (USCSB) released a report last week, roughly a year since one of the worst industrial accidents in the history of the United States, concluding that the explosion was the result of failures at the state, local and national level. While the West Fertilizer company is ultimately responsible, government regulations are necessary to force corporations to do what too many of them would not do otherwise. That didn’t happen in this case.
West Fertilizer courted disaster by storing the highly unstable ammonium nitrate in wooden bins in a wooden warehouse that was not equipped with sprinklers. The USCSB told The New York Times that ammonium nitrate has caused more widespread harm to the public than any other chemical, yet there is no federal regulation in place preventing a company like West Fertilizer from storing it in the dangerous way that it did. Texas, in turn, has no statewide regulations requiring companies to store and handle volatile chemicals safely.
Locally, an emergency planning committee had not adopted a response plan for the plant, which dominated the community of West, Texas. Overmatched volunteer firefighters who rushed to the scene were largely unaware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate, according to the report. There were no local zoning regulations in place to prevent a chemical plant from being located near residential areas. The explosion of as much as 160 tons of ammonium nitrate and resulting fire destroyed or damaged more than 700 homes. The town 20 miles north of Waco is still rebuilding a year later.
The process failed at every level, and making it even more infuriating, Washington had an opportunity to head this off a decade ago. In 2002, the Chemical Safety Board, which can do no more than issue recommendations, recommended to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that "reactive" chemicals like ammonium nitrate be regulated for safety. The EPA and OSHA, at that time overseen by the anti-regulatory George W. Bush administration, ignored the safety board’s advice. "Had regulators acted sooner," said Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, ... "the accident might have been prevented."
While it is too late for West, Texas, it is incumbent upon President Obama to see that the EPA and OSHA begin regulating these hazardous chemicals so another tragedy can be averted. States must do their part, and to its credit, Massachusetts has long taken its regulatory duties seriously in regard to hazards, environmental and otherwise, which cannot be said for every state. Municipalities must meet their obligations as well. Regulations are only as good as their enforcement, which means hiring sufficient inspectors. That costs money, a cost that is minuscule compared to the cost of rebuilding a city that has been partly blown off the planet.