On April 17, 2013, an ammonium nitrate chemical storage facility in West, Texas exploded killing 15, injuring 160 and destroyed or damaged over 160 buildings. The cause of the original fire is still unknown. The plant that exploded was owned by a privately held family corporation. The plant only carried $1 million in liability insurance which under Texas law, was $1 million more than it needed. One year later, no legislation has even been introduced to increase regulations or inspections.
A year after the explosion, the US Chemical Safety Board issued its findings:
CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said, “The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”
The CSB’s investigation found that at the state level, there is no fire code and in fact counties under a certain population are prohibited from having them. “Local authorities and specifically-local fire departments-need fire codes so they can hold industrial operators accountable for safe storage and handling of chemicals,” said Dr. Moure-Eraso.
CSB Supervisory Investigator Johnnie Banks said “The CSB found at all levels of government a failure to adopt codes to keep populated areas away from hazardous facilities, not just in West, Texas. We found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate. Farm communities are just starting to collect data on how close homes or schools are to AN storage, but there can be little doubt that West is not alone and that other communities should act to determine what hazards might exist in proximity.”
The CSB’s preliminary findings follow a yearlong investigation which has focused on learning how to prevent a similar accident from occurring in another community. “It is imperative that people learn from the tragedy at West,” Dr. Moure-Eraso said.
One of the major factors that has kept any new regulations from being passed has been the large amounts of cash from families like the Koch brothers that has flowed into the pockets of the Republican politicians. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow talked with Wayne Slater, senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News, about Texas Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott allowing chemical plants to keep their contents secret, a move that benefits Koch Industries, and a campaign donor.
Hazardous chemical lists no longer public record in Texas
DALLAS — For the past 30 years, federal law has required chemical makers and handlers to disclose what’s stored on premises. It’s called the Community Right To Know Act, and it has been at the core of the safety conversation since last year’s deadly fertilizer explosion in West, Texas.
But News 8 has learned that in the past few weeks, state health officials have stopped making those hazardous chemical records public. [..]
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “states and communities […] can use the Tier II information to improve chemical safety and protect public health and the environment.” In Texas, Tier II reports are kept on file at the Department of State Health Services and according to its web site, those reports are public information. All citizens “may ask for” them by simply filling out a request.
Yet, just days ago, following the ammonium nitrate building fire in Athens, when News 8 asked the Department of State Health Services for an updated Tier II report on the facility, department spokesperson Carrie Williams told us, “We’re not able to release the kind of information you’re requesting.”
Williams cited an Attorney General’s ruling from May 22, 2014, which denied public access to “Tier Two information […] because it reveals the location, quantity and identity of hazardous chemicals […] likely to assist in the construction of an explosive weapon.”
Emergency officials and responders are now the only ones in Texas able to access Tier II reports.
Abbott: Ask Chemical Plants What’s Inside
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored – as long as they know which companies to ask.
“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”
In a recently released decision by his office, Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said government entities can withhold the state records – in so-called Tier II reports – of dangerous chemical locations. The reports contain an inventory of hazardous chemicals.
But Abbott said homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals could simply ask the companies near their homes what substances are kept on site.
Collected under the federal Community Right to Know Act, the information was made available upon request by the state for decades to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But, as WFAA-TV recently reported, the Texas Department of State Health Services will no longer release the information because of the attorney general’s ruling.