Senator Calls For Greater Oversight of Fertilizer Plants

The deadly explosion ripped through the fertilizer plant late on April 13, injuring more than 200 people, destroying 50 homes and damaging other buildings.

Photo by REUTERS /MIKE STONE /LANDOV

The deadly explosion ripped through the fertilizer plant late on April 13, injuring more than 200 people, destroying 50 homes and damaging other buildings.

In a letter to Texas Governor Rick Perry and governors of other states today, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called on state leaders to do more to prevent disasters at fertilizer plants like the one last April in West, Texas.

“The federal government isn’t doing enough right now, and I’m going to lay out what I think we should do,” Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said at a press conference in Washington today. “But until that time, if there’s even one more tragic death from improper storage of ammonium nitrate, we’ll have lost this opportunity.”

At a hearing of the committee in late June, testimony showed that the fertilizer plant in West had no sprinkler system, stored ammonium nitrate in a wood building, and wasn’t subject to a fire code.

“I want the people of West, Texas to know that I don’t intend to stop after one hearing,” Boxer said. “I am keeping my focus on this issue because I know what has to be done to save lives.”

The fire and explosion at the plant in West on April 17 killed 15 people, injured at least 200 more and damaged 350 homes.

Boxer called on state governors to review their policies for storage, while also asking federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update their requirements for ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage. She also called for requirements that ammonium nitrate be stored separately from potential sources of fire. Boxer said it was “inexcusable” that the EPA hadn’t updated their alert for for ammonium nitrate. Those alerts include a fact sheet on the substance and a list of recommendations for its storage.

(Update: in a statement today, the EPA says that the agency is “actively examining existing legal authorities and policies to improve chemical plant safety” and “reviewing the 1997 alert to determine any necessary updates for the safe management and storage of ammonium nitrate.”)

“There’s a lot of things we can’t control,” Boxer said. “But we can control this. We have the information, we know what has to be done. It’s not rocket science here.”

The fertilizer plant in West hadn’t been inspected by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985.

Boxer encouraged states to do more while federal rules are considered.

“They’re always saying, they don’t want federal regulation,” Boxer said. “But here they now know what can happen. So my hope would be, that you would see state legislators, governors, and county supervisors throughout the country work on this. So we could have multiple layers of people throughout the country working on this.”

A Texas House committee has held two hearings on the West Fertilizer explosion, but has recommended little regulation or oversight to increase safety at ammonium nitrate facilities in the state.

Governor Perry’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Perry today officially appealed the federal government’s decision to deny a disaster declaration for West.

Boxer said the Senate committee will hold another hearing on the West explosion and oversight of ammonium nitrate in September or October.

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