Government Shutdown Delays West Investigation

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

Photo by REUTERS /MIKE STONE /LANDOV

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

After the West Fertilizer Plant explosion on April 17, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said that “the federal government isn’t doing enough right now” to address regulating industrial disasters. Now, thanks to the federal government shutdown, it’s doing even less.

Senator Boxer, who is the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, held a press conference yesterday highlighting the impact of the shutdown on the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and other agencies. The CSB is the agency leading the investigation into the West explosion. Thirty seven of its 41 employees have been furloughed because of the shutdown.

The explosion at the West Fertilizer Company killed 15 people, injured at least 200 more, and damaged 350 homes. A fire in the plant caused its store of ammonium nitrate to explode, but authorities still don’t know why the fire started. Investigators have said they may never know.

Ammonium nitrate is still being sold by the ton with little regulation.

Photo by flickr user beancaker

Ammonium nitrate is still being sold by the ton with little regulation.

West Mayor Tommy Muska hopes that isn’t the case. He has repaired the town by working with many of the agencies that are now shut down.

“I would love for them to come up with a definitive answer as to what caused that explosion,” Muska said to KUT’s Laura Rice. “They may never be able to come up with a definitive answer to that question, it may never be answered as far as what exactly caused the fire to start.”­

The shutdown isn’t just affecting ongoing investigations. According to CSB Chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, it could also have grave consequences if another disaster were to occur.

“If a major chemical accident were to happen in an American community tomorrow, we have no ability to respond. And so we all just hope and pray that the shutdown ends soon,” Moure-Eraso said at a press conference with Senator Boxer.

Meanwhile, plenty of ammonium nitrate is still being sold. Despite Senator Boxer and others’ calls for greater oversight of the chemical, The Dallas Morning News recently reported that regulation hasn’t come quickly. According to that report, producers still sell around 1 million tons of ammonium nitrate per year at about $500 per ton.

Muska went on to say that even though he’s frustrated by the amount of time the investigation has taken, he’s too busy rebuilding West to think about it. The town is currently processing over 150 building permits for structures that were damaged by the explosion.

“We’re moving forward, and I think that’s going to give people closure,” he said.

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