Texas Explosion Seen as Sign of Weak U.S. Oversight

The Texas plant that was the scene of a deadly explosion this week was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 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 Oklahoma City bombing.

For worker- and chemical-safety advocates who have been pushing the U.S. government to crack down on facilities that make or store large quantities of hazardous chemicals, the blast in West, Texas, was a grim reminder of the risks these plants pose. And they say regulators haven’t done enough to tackle the problem.

“Definitely, somewhere along the line at the federal level, there was a failure,” Sean Moulton, director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington-based watchdog, said in an interview. “It was quite clear that they just didn’t consider flammability or explosiveness to be a problem, and given what occurred that was clearly shortsighted.”

The April 17 fire and explosion at Adair Grain Inc.’s West Fertilizer Co. plant flattened houses and devastated the center of the town of West, about 80 miles south of Dallas. Search crews had recovered 12 bodies as of noon today and 200 people were reported injured, making it the worst U.S. industrial disaster in three years. U.S. Senator John Cornyn said 60 people remain unaccounted for.

Cornyn said today he’s “confident” the blast will lead to a review of the government’s chemical plant safety rules.

Agricultural Chemical

West Fertilizer produced anhydrous ammonia, a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen that farmers inject into the soil as a crop nutrient. It also held in storage as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer that was used by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, in Oklahoma City eighteen years ago today. That material was also employed by the Irish Republican Army in its 1996 Canary Wharf attack in London.

There are no federal rules mandating that such plants be located away from residential areas, and the current company safety plans aren’t always shared widely with residents nearby, said Paul Orum, an independent consultant who has authored reports on chemical safety for the Center for American Progress.

Regulator Citations

In Texas, “I would be surprised if the risks present were communicated to those nearby,” he said in an interview.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office lists Donald R. Adair and Wanda L. Adair as owners and co-directors of Adair Grain, with Donald serving as president and Wanda as vice president. A man who answered a reporter’s telephone call to the company declined to identify himself or comment.

The company has been cited for a series of violations over the past few years.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on June 12 ordered the company to pay $5,250 for improperly planning to transport anhydrous ammonia. Violations included the use of unauthorized cargo tanks and failure to develop a transportation security plan, according to a PHMSA order that said the company had corrected the violations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted an inspection of the risk management plan at the plant in 2006, and found a number of deficiencies, including that the company was two years late filing the document. It fined the facility $2,300, and directed it to correct deficiencies, such as the failure to document hazards, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said in an e-mail.

Facility ‘Grandfathered’

Texas environmental regulators investigated the facility seven times between 2002 and 2007. An odor complaint in June 2006 triggered an inspection that resulted in a notice of violation for operating without a required air permit.

The facility, built in 1962, wasn’t required to have air permits until 2004 because it was “grandfathered” under state law, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. A series of subsequent inspections through 2007 found no concerns. No complaints were received in the past six years, the state agency said.

A risk management plan the company filed with the EPA said it “received, stored and distributed” 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which it didn’t characterize as flammable, according to a copy of the plan published on the Center for Effective Government website. The inventory of emergency and hazardous chemicals filed by the company with Texas regulators also didn’t list fire among the hazards for anhydrous ammonia.

In certain conditions, it’s highly flammable, said John Goodpaster, an assistant professor at Indiana University-Purdue University.

OSHA Inspection

OSHA, part of the Labor Department, last inspected the plant in February 1985, according to its online database. OSHA is now sending inspectors to the site of the blast to see if there were health or safety violations at the plant, Labor Department spokesman Jesse Lawder said in an e-mail.

Safety advocates say the problems go well beyond the individual case, which is under investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, EPA and OSHA.

The ratio of OSHA inspectors to workers has fallen over the past three decades, and there are now 2,200 for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the last fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to a report by the AFL-CIO.

AFL-CIO Comment

The West fertilizer plant had only about seven employees, and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA,” Peg Seminario, safety and health director of the labor federation, said in an interview. “What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.”

Since the Bhopal chemical release in India in 1984 that killed thousands of people, environmental groups, unions and safety groups have been pushing the U.S. to tighten federal oversight of chemical production and storage facilities. While they pressed for such proposals after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, legislation they advocated never passed Congress. The EPA considered regulations but dropped that idea under President George W. Bush’s administration.

As a U.S. senator, Barack Obama teamed with New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg to propose legislation tightening standards on chemical plants. That effort never succeeded and Obama made it a recurring theme in his 2008 presidential election bid.

Obama Campaign

During his campaign, Obama promised to “secure our chemical plants by setting a clear set of federal regulations that all plants must follow.” Just days before the election he mentioned it as an example of where government regulation is needed, despite industry pressure.

“Well, I think it’s a classic example of special interests lobbying,” Obama told MSNBC television. “There has been resistance from the chemical industry.”

Lobbying groups for these plants say the risks are limited and they now face a panoply of regulations and oversight.

“It’s extraordinarily out of the ordinary to have this kind of experience,” Kathy Mathers, vice president of the Fertilizer Institute in Washington, said in an interview. “Both the producer and retailer side are heavily regulated.”

Since Obama took office, the Homeland Security Department has taken steps to regulate the industry.

Facilities Exempted

Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace, said in an interview that those efforts haven’t gone far enough, because thousands of high-risk plants such as water-treatment facilities and many refineries are exempted. Both the Homeland Security Department and EPA also urged Congress to pass legislation, although that faces long odds.

Now groups including unions and environmentalists say they want EPA to issue regulations to accomplish the same end.

On July 25 about 50 groups sent a petition to the agency asking it to invoke a provision of the Clean Air Act to implement rules mandating the use of non-hazardous chemicals, or changes in processes at those plants to reduce the risks, such as lowering concentrations or changing temperatures.

The petition was signed by groups such as the United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Air Alliance Houston.

“Chemical plant safety is a high priority issue, and EPA is committed to continuing to work with our federal partners and stakeholders to pursue opportunities to increase the safety of chemical plants,” Johnson, the EPA spokeswoman, said via e-mail when asked yesterday about the Greenpeace petition.

Since receiving the petition, EPA hasn’t responded and it faces no deadline to do so.

“This is something you don’t want to be proven right about,” Hind said. “We’ve been growing increasingly impatient.”