Rebuilding continues in West, as Texas drags its feet on regulations

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Until one year ago, the small agricultural town of West in Central Texas — population about 2,800 — was best known for the place where travelers on Interstate 35 between Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin would stop for a little taste of Czech culture.

The proud, close-knit farming community didn’t have much industry, but depended on a plant that mixed fertilizers for crops like wheat, grain sorghum and corn.

On April 17, 2013, more than 20 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in that plant ignited, causing a massive explosion that left a 93-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep crater, leveled 37 square blocks of the tiny town, killed 15 people (including 12 first responders) and injured almost 200.

The blast and fire caused about $100 million in damages, destroying scores of residences, a nursing home, two of the city’s four schools and other public buildings.

Evidence of the destruction is still quite visible a year later, but so is the resilient spirit of residents who, from those first horrifying moments, were determined not to abandon their community but to rebuild it along with their lives.

And that they’ve been doing, with the help of the federal and state governments, organizations like the Texas Rangers and individuals from all over the nation who were touched by the tragedy and the suffering people unwilling to be defeated by it.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was quick on the scene with assistance for housing and money for debris removal, originally refused to declare West a major disaster area. After an appeal from Gov. Rick Perry, FEMA changed course and provided millions for the town’s infrastructure.

In February the federal agency allocated $20 million to rebuild the middle and high schools, which were destroyed. The school district’s insurance paid $30 million for reconstruction.

More than 120 homes have already been rebuilt, and construction on the new schools should begin this summer.

While this recovery effort is most encouraging, the one area in which Texans ought to be very disappointed is the slow pace at which state officials and the Legislature have moved to regulate storage of chemical materials.

Although some federal and state laws exist to govern the storage of ammonium nitrate, the West disaster revealed that inspection and enforcement were lax.

In addition, in a state where most of the firefighters are volunteers, most of those first responders have not been trained to handle chemical fires.

The Legislature was in session last year, but not one bill was introduced to address this problem.

This week, the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee did hear testimony from some witnesses urging, at the very least, that fertilizer plants be required to store materials in concrete, stone or metal buildings or have a fire sprinkler system.

The committee heard testimony that 46 of the 96 such plants in Texas are wooden, like the one that exploded in West.

Committee Chair Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he expects some legislation to be introduced in the 2015 session, but noted that members were concentrating on coming up with “passable” legislation, according to WFAA.com.

To some, that means watered-down bills that will have little impact on an industry that needs greater oversight. So, rather than depend on the state, some advocacy groups are looking to the federal government to provide the new safety standards.

President Obama has ordered federal agencies to address the issue in a unified approach, and he expects to receive a plan by May 1. Also, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has scheduled a meeting in West Tuesday to discuss its findings, Environment & Energy Publishing reported Monday.

That will be a start. But the state must not shirk its responsibility on this issue.

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