How the West Fertilizer Explosion is Influencing Debate at the Legislature

Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

Searchers in protective suits walk through the blast zone of the fertilizer plant that exploded.

Update: House Bill 1714 failed to come up for a vote in the Texas House by the end of the day Thursday, the deadline for bills to pass out of the House. This is first time the bill has not been approved by the house since 2003, when  Rep. Wayne Smith first filed it. Previously the bill has always died in the State Senate, according to testimony Rep. Smith gave at an April 9th committee hearing

Investigators continue to sift through the rubble in West, Texas to learn how a fertilizer plant there exploded, taking 15 lives and destroying nearly two hundred homes.  Many state officials deny that environmental regulations, or their absence,  had anything to do with the disaster.

But that hasn’t stopped the tragedy from changing the way people talk about environmental regulation this session.

One example?  House Bill 1714, up for a vote today.

The bill would end a program that grades businesses on environmental compliance and makes those grades public. The bill’s author, state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, says the program at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) burdens businesses and regulators alike.

“It’s done by a complicated equation and it varies based on the size of the facility, and it’s been difficult to establish that rating process through the years,” Wayne said.

Even some environmentalists have questioned the value of the program. But, since the explosion in West, many also question the wisdom of scrapping it.

“As the West explosion demonstrates, more, not less, public disclosure is critically needed in Texas,” read one press release emailed out against the bill within hours of its being scheduled for a vote.

“That very tragic accident shows us that the public, citizens and communities having access to information about what sort of facilities in and out of communities. How they’re doing in terms of their compliance record their safety record, is very very important,” said David Weinberg, director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, the group that put out the press release.

Weinbergs’s group is monitoring a handful of bills he thinks would weaken environmental rules. Since the blast he says some of them have fallen by the wayside. He wonders if some lawmakers are now reluctant to push for loosening regulations.

“The session isn’t over yet, any of that stuff could pop up, but we’re not seeing it now,” he said.

It’s no surprise that what happened in West would have political implications.

“Even as recovery efforts were still underway, there were questions raised about safety and the regulatory treatment in West,” said Jim Henson, director the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin.

But Henson points out that raising those questions has proven to be a double edged sword.

“The response that countered that immediately took people to task for politicizing what was a human tragedy,” he said.

Henson says Texas’ conservative political leadership is still probably too skeptical of regulation to let the explosion change what bills win or lose this session.

For his part, Rep. Smith is unsure what impacts the blast has had on the willingness of  lawmakers to support regulatory overhauls.

“I don’t know that it’s had a chilling effect or not,” he said.

Though, Smith added, the tragedy probably has focused more attention on how we regulate as a state.

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