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Regulations Not at Fault in Texas Explosion, Officials Say

May 2, 2013
West Explosion Aerial
The site of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, several days following the massive explosion that left 14 people dead and 200 injured.   

Texas officials, appearing at a hearing on last month’s deadly blast at a fertilizer plant, defended the state’s oversight and said regulations are adequate to prevent future catastrophes.

None of the 16 state officials who testified at the state’s first hearing on the fire and explosion at the Adair Grain Inc. plant in West, Texas, that killed at least 14 people and injured 200 called for additional regulations involving hazardous materials, insurance requirements or emergency responses.

"Even in the midst of great tragedy, the system worked," said Nim Kidd, chief of emergency management at the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The explosion, which left a crater 93 feet by 10 feet and registered 2.1 magnitude on earthquake monitors, has fueled a national debate over the adequacy of chemical safety laws and regulations. The plant hadn’t been inspected by federal workplace regulators in more than 27 years.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said yesterday the committee will investigate the blast as she presses federal regulators on chemical-safety laws.

The state fire marshal’s office expects to complete its report on the April 17 disaster by May 10, assistant director Kelly Kistner said. Eighty investigators remain at the 14.9-acre site, with 27 state and federal agencies involved, he said.

OSHA Inspection

The plant’s most recent inspection by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was in 1985. The risk plan it filed with regulators listed no flammable chemicals. And it was cleared to hold many times the ammonium nitrate that was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

The U.S. has about 90 facilities -- including chemical factories, refineries, water treatment plants or fertilizer depots -- that in a worst-case scenario would pose risks to more than a million people, according to a Congressional Research Service report in November that analyzed reports submitted by companies to the EPA.

Forty-one plants in Texas mix chemicals in a similar manner as the Adair Grain plant according to industry classification codes, Kathy Perkins, assistant director of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said at today’s hearing in Austin. Kidd said he could urge local fire chiefs in those communities to examine those plants, which were not identified.

‘Taking Potshots’

The hearing was intended to clarify roles of various state agencies in handling hazardous materials and emergency response, rather than assign blame, said state Representative Joe Pickett, a Democrat from El Paso who leads the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

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