Texas Blast Reveals the Holes in Chemical Oversight

May 31 (Bloomberg) -- Six weeks after a fertilizer center near West, Texas, blew up, killing 15 people, it has become clear that none of the half-dozen state and federal agencies overseeing the place regulated the safe storage of the chemical that exploded.

Investigators have concluded that a fire at West Fertilizer Co. -- perhaps caused by arson, an electrical short or a spark from a golf cart -- detonated large stores of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used as both a fertilizer and a commercial explosive. The blast devastated a 37-block area.

None of the regulatory agencies focuses on the specific hazard of fire plus an explosive compound, existing in the midst of schools, a nursing home and scores of residences. Given that at least 2,400 businesses in the U.S. store ammonium nitrate, the lack of regulation is a national issue.

Texas sets no standards for the fire-safe storage of ammonium nitrate. The state Commission on Environmental Quality policed the West Fertilizer Co. only in regard to air quality and pollution. The Office of the Texas State Chemist inspected the center yearly to ensure compliance with a state requirement that the facility enclose and lock its ammonium nitrate stores to keep them from being stolen by terrorists.

National Regulations

Federal oversight also missed the problem. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulated only the transportation of chemicals in and out of the facility. The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration conceivably could have noticed any faulty wiring at the business, but OSHA last inspected the place in 1985. With just 2,000 inspectors for the nation’s 8 million workplaces, the agency can’t police the chemical industry.

That is more the writ of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission includes protecting people and the environment from the risks of toxic chemicals. The EPA required that West Fertilizer provide a risk-management plan for its handling of another fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia, which is toxic and stored under high pressure. Yet the EPA doesn’t mandate risk-management plans for ammonium nitrate, despite the evident dangers.

Originally, the agency required such plans for some explosives, but in response to a lawsuit from the Institute of Makers of Explosives, it delisted the category altogether in 1988, saying the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had them covered. The ATF, however, only regulates explosives more powerful than ammonium nitrate.

Only tough local zoning laws might protect against building high schools and nursing homes next to ammonium nitrate stores. West didn’t have such restrictions, and the fertilizer distributor stood outside city limits anyway.

In any case, local authorities may not be well equipped to gauge the risks in chemical storage, and business-hungry state officials may be inclined to discount them. That’s why it should be a federal agency that regulates the storage of ammonium nitrate.

The EPA is a good choice because it already possesses considerable authority to manage risks such as those that led to the catastrophe in West. For example, the agency requires that state and local officials have emergency-response plans for dealing with a list of chemicals. It can, and should, add ammonium nitrate to that list. Under EPA rules, West Fertilizer was required only to inform state and local officials, including the fire department, that it had ammonium nitrate on site.

Risk Management

The EPA should also require risk-management plans of ammonium nitrate distributors. Specifically, the agency should insist that they maintain their electrical systems, keep fire hazards away from the chemical compound, and separate bins to prevent secondary explosions.

The EPA should demand that all new distributors of ammonium nitrate have buffer zones separating their stockpiles from inhabited areas. Congress should offer existing distributors tax incentives to relocate their supplies. There’s a precedent for this: The agricultural chemicals security credit, which expired on Jan. 1, offered sellers of agricultural chemicals a 30 percent federal income tax credit to offset the costs of securing dangerous substances against theft by terrorists or other criminals.

The last time a fertilizer facility containing ammonium nitrate blew up -- in 2001, in Toulouse, France, killing 30 people and damaging 30,000 buildings -- investigators never determined the cause. Authorities may never know exactly what occurred in West either. But they can act now to minimize chances it will happen again.

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