A chemical trailer sits among the remains of the burning fertilizer plant in April 2013.
Federal Agency Says ‘It Should Never Have Occurred’
A year after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas, a federal agency is releasing a report saying the disaster was preventable.
The Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents and issues recommendations to ensure public safety, is presenting its preliminary findings tonight in the town of West, Texas, where the fire and subsequent explosion last year took 15 lives, injured hundreds, and destroyed homes and schools.
“It should never have occurred,” Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, the head of the agency, says in a statement. “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.” Continue Reading →
Organizers of the event say most of those wrecks stem from the “3 D’s” – drugs, drinking and distracted driving. But the oil and gas boom in the Basin is compounding those dangers: simply put, there’s just more traffic and bigger trucks on the road than before.
State regulators blame big spikes in emissions to "upsets" at a few facilities like this one in Houston in 2012
With budgets already reduced and with more cuts on the way, federal environmental regulators are expected to be doing fewer inspections of industries that pollute. And if state environmental regulators were expected to take up the slack, many of them — including those in Texas —- are dealing with budget cuts of their own.
“There have been just dramatically fewer [EPA] inspections,” said Bernadette Rappold, a lawyer who spent years working in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement division. She’s now with the McGuireWoods law firm in Washington.
A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle laying its eggs on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Around this time every year, female Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles arrive like clockwork on Matagorda Island, on the Texas Gulf Coast.
“During the day they’ll craw up, usually closer to the dunes, and they’ll dig out an area and they’ll lay a nest of several eggs,” says Jeremy Edwardson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ”Then they move back out to the water’s edge.”
The Island is a wildlife refuge maintained by the service. Edwardson says it’s usually kept free of all human activity.
Memorials near the site of the explosion in the town of West, Texas.
State Lawmaker Leading Review Says Nothing’s Changed
WEST, TX – Trucks and bulldozers are still working here, the site of an explosion a year ago today. A deadly blast tore through this small community, killing fifteen and injuring hundreds. Homes and schools were destroyed, with the damage estimated to be over a hundred million dollars. There’s a lone charred tree that still stands at the location of the blast, but other than that, the site is mostly empty. Crosses and memorials that read “West Strong” and “West is the Best” line the road.
The explosion at the West fertilizer plant was one of the worst industrial disasters in Texas history. So what’s Texas doing to prevent it from happening again?
“Well, technically, nothing has been done,” says state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Pickett says since West happened near the end of the legislative session, he didn’t want to rush in any “knee-jerk” rules or regulations.
The state is making an effort to get more timely and accurate information from fertilizer facilities in Texas about how much ammonium nitrate they have. That chemical was the culprit in the blast (investigators are still trying to determine what caused the small fire that ignited the ammonium nitrate). Ammonium nitrate was also behind the Texas City disaster of 1947 that killed hundreds, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that killed 168.
“We’re slow learners, I guess,” says Tommy Muska, mayor of West. “History shows us ammonium nitrate is a dangerous product.” Continue Reading →
The City of Houston is moving forward with a plan to allow residents to throw all trash and recycling materials into one bin. The garbage and recyclables would later be sorted at a processing plant. The One Bin for All program is intended to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.
The city issued a request for proposals from six companies interested in operating the program.
Laura Spanjian is the City of Houston’s Sustainability Director. She says right now the city diverts about 19 percent of total waste from landfills.
“So with this new concept and this new facility, we’re going to be able to divert 55 to 60 percent of recycled material and food waste in our first year and we hope to get up to 75 percent diversion in our second year,” Spanjian says. Continue Reading →
A state appeals court has thwarted a challenge to a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in West Texas – a ruling that signals growing difficulties for those trying to scrutinize the decisions of Texas environmental regulators.
Depending on whom you ask, such a trend would either rightly save companies time and money or unjustly bar citizens from fully sharing their environmental concerns.
The site, a 36-acre facility in Andrews County operated by Waste Control Specialists — a company formerly owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons — is the final resting place for hazardous waste and slightly radioactive items from shuttered nuclear reactors and hospitals, among other places.
A crude oil storage tank in Cushing, Oklahoma. For years there was a glut of crude there.
The United States has never exported much crude oil. We use so much of the stuff that we’ve always needed to import it from other countries. But even if we wanted to ship it away, there are laws that ban most all overseas crude exports. Now, as domestic drilling continues to surge, some are calling for the repeal of those laws.
To understand why, it helps to remember the ‘Cushing Glut.’
If you pay attention to the oil business, you might remember the glut. It’s a bottleneck of crude oil – much of it unleashed through fracking in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale — shipped to Cushing, Oklahoma in pipelines, then trapped there.
Hannah Breul is an industry economist with the U.S. Energy Information Administration who studied that bottleneck. She says the mechanics of the glut are about as simple as household plumbing.
“If you think about it as a bathtub, you have water coming in from the faucet, but then also coming out of the drain. The relative level of those flows will impact what the overall inventory is at any one time,” says Breul.
For the last few years, the drain in Cushing was too small for the stuff pouring in. So the bathtub filled to the brim.
Then, this year, the pipeline company TransCanada opened up the southern leg of its Keystone XL pipeline. That, and the reversal of an existing pipeline known as the Seaway, made the drain bigger. The glut moved south.
Crews are still working to clear the site of the explosion in West, Texas.
This week marks a year since a fertilizer plant exploded in the small Texas town of West, killing fifteen, injuring over a hundred, and destroying homes and local schools. Today, a meeting at the state legislature made it clear that lawmakers aren’t in any hurry to use regulation to guard against something like West from happening again.
The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee met for the first time since August to look into the industrial disaster. The State Fire Marshal told the committee that his office is still not sure what sparked the fire. It could have been electrical, or a malfunctioning golf cart battery, or it could have been started on purpose. But without question, the cause of the destructive blast was ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer had been legally stored in a wooden building with no sprinkler system.
What new rules and regulations should be considered to prevent another West? Two clear solutions emerged at the hearing: stricter standards for storing ammonium nitrate, and more training and coordination for local officials and first responders.
Workers scraping oil-drenched sand from the beaches of Matagorda Island.
MATAGORDA ISLAND, TX — Recovery efforts continue weeks after a barge accident in the Houston Ship Channel dumped tens of thousands of barrels of oil into Galveston Bay. That oil kills wildlife and damages the environment. But some are worried the cleanup itself could also disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is that threat more apparent than in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Every morning this week, hundreds of workers have gone out to Matagorda Island, a part of that refuge, to try to remove the oil. On a recent tour organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the response team appeared to work with great care, gingerly scraping thin layers of oil-drenched sand away with shovels, then depositing it into nearby excavators for delivery into larger dump trucks. Over ten tons of sand has been removed so far.
Randal Ogrydziak, the U.S. Coast Guard captain who is one of the coordinators of the spill response, likens the painstaking process to shoveling a gravel driveway after a snow storm.