Editorial: Plant inspection and fines come a little too late for people of West

Posted Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration closed the barn door in West on Wednesday — “after the cow is already out.”

At least that’s how Mayor Tommy Muska put it upon learning that OSHA had issued 24 citations to the West Fertilizer Co., where a massive explosion April 17 leveled much of the town, killing 15 people and injuring more than 160.

The company was fined $118,300 for violations OSHA found during inspections after the explosion. The problems, which may have had nothing to do with the blast, included failure to safely store and handle anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, poor labeling of storage tanks, having untested replacement hoses and inappropriate fire extinguishers and not having an emergency response plan.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced the citations in a conference call Thursday, a day after they were issued, blaming the government shutdown for the delay.

The shutdown was also blamed for suspension of an investigation of the West disaster by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

The board was to hold public hearings on the explosion Oct. 24 to consider new safety measures for ammonium nitrate, but the majority of its 41 employees have been furloughed, which basically shut down the entire agency, NBC News reported.

It’s understandable why the mayor of West considers the citations and fines by OSHA too little too late. He is acutely aware that the plant in his community — built close to homes, a school and retail shops — had not been inspected by the federal agency in almost 30 years.

Now, after the destruction of much of the town, amounting to more than $100 million in damages, the government arrives and delivers its sanctions against the company. Boxer did say that more fines are possible as the investigation continues.

Of course, the issue of regulating and inspecting chemical plants is much larger than West. NBC News reported that hundreds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer sites are in operation across the country, with many close to populated areas.

Considering the amount of chemicals stored in some of these facilities, they can be like ticking bombs waiting to go off without safeguards in place. The West plant, for example, had a storage bin that housed 150 tons of ammonium nitrate, and about 28 to 34 tons exploded, according to WFAA.com. That amount was equal to 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of dynamite exploding, the television station said.

Boxer admits that more inspections are needed, but acknowledges that the government has not provided the resources to make that happen. Meanwhile, she said, “We have to hope that our businesses have some moral obligation to do the right thing.”

We can hope that plant operators will take every precaution to abide by applicable regulations and provide the safest environment possible, but many will not do that without rigid government oversight and enforcement.

It should be up to the senator and her colleagues in Congress to make sure that happens.

Otherwise, more dangerous “cows” are likely to leave the barn.

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