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.
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.
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.
"I feel confident that the agencies with oversight are doing their jobs," he told reporters after the hearing. "I take offense at other states that are taking potshots at Texas."
It’s unclear if the West Volunteer Fire Department had developed an emergency response plan with Adair Grain, Pickett said. "Whether they had a plan or not, their plan of action was incredible," said state Representative Kyle Kacal, a Pearland Republican who represents West.
Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a April 22 interview with Bloomberg News that there hadn’t been any violations at the West plant since 2006 and that recent inspections hadn’t found any "abnormalities that would cause concern." Calls for change are "premature" until investigations of the cause are complete, he said.
Texas environmental groups, including Public Citizen Texas and Texas Campaign for the Environment, said in an April 24 statement that state lawmakers should pass tougher regulation and step up enforcement, including more inspections and disclosure of toxic threats.
"They are trying to create an impression that no regulation could have prevented this tragedy and that is absurd," said James Moore, director of Progress Texas, an Austin-based political action committee that supports Democratic candidates, said.
The Adair plant lacked adequate liability insurance for the risks stemming from its hazardous materials, Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman said. State officials have estimated the explosion caused $100 million of property damage.
State leaders should require plants storing large amounts of chemicals to operate further from residential areas, Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit that favors tighter enforcement, said in an interview. A public school and nursing home operated within two blocks of the Adair plant.
"There are some pretty straightforward solutions that would help ensure these kinds of tragedies don’t happen again, such as a buffer zone between industry and neighborhoods," Levin said. "There is no requirement for appropriate buffers between these dangerous materials and the neighborhoods."