As the second anniversary approaches of the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, regulations are under consideration in Austin that could prevent a similar disaster — but it remains uncertain whether lawmakers will ultimately adopt them.
The laws would be the first enacted since the April 17, 2013, explosion at West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 and injured more than 200. A series of hearings were held in the weeks after the blast, but lawmakers didn’t adopt any reforms.
This session there are three bills narrowly tailored to regulate the storage and inspection of ammonium nitrate, a common but highly flammable ingredient in fertilizer. A fourth bill more broadly would establish a statewide notification system alerting the public about any hazardous chemical leak at a manufacturing facility.
“If all four of these bills move forward and all four pass, then we’d see meaningful improvements,” said Alex Winslow, executive director of Austin-based Texas Watch.
Winslow said one of the laws under consideration is important because it would require any plant that stores ammonium nitrate to carry liability insurance. The owners of the West Fertilizer Co. had $1 million in liability coverage, but the damage from the explosion there exceeded $200 million, he said.
The bill submitted by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would task the Texas Department of Insurance with reviewing plants to assess their risk level and determine what the liability coverage should be. Winslow said the law would motivate those handling ammonium nitrate by having them install fireproof storage bins, sprinkler systems and other safety measures to reduce coverage costs.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, state director for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said it’s likely at least one of the bills will pass this session. He’s testified in favor of legislation requiring that the public, along with local and state authorities, be told where ammonium nitrate is kept.
“It assures that average citizens have the right to know where ammonium nitrate is stored and thus are able to make informed decisions on how to protect themselves,” Smith said.
He acknowledged that as with any legislation, there’s the chance that backroom negotiations could neuter any bill adopted this session.
“Oftentimes you go for the perfect and end up with good enough,” he said.
The lead investigator for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said a priority should be made for storing ammonium nitrate in concrete bins, or some other noncombustible hold. Johnnie Banks said the chemical in West was stored in wooden containers and that, combined with other combustible material at the plant, “contributed to the severity of the event.”
Banks, a supervisory investigator for CSB, said the unpredictability of ammonium nitrate means first responders must know ahead of time when they’re contending with an emergency situation that involves the chemical. He said only about 20 minutes passed from the time a patrolman noticed smoke coming from the West Fertilizer Co. to the fatal detonation.
“The fact that the events unfolded so rapidly, and examining past instances of ammonium nitrate detonation, there’s no consistent pattern where you have X amount of time when it will detonate,” he said.
A “robust” notification system would notify local fire officials about a facility storing the chemical and then allow them to tour the plant and pre-plan in case of a disaster, Banks said.
Congressional investigators said last year that the government has no way of knowing which U.S. chemical facilities stock ammonium nitrate. A federal report showed that outdated federal policies, poor information-sharing with states and a raft of industry exemptions point to scant federal oversight.
The Government Accountability Office found that the Homeland Security Department’s database captured only a fraction of the ammonium nitrate storage facilities in the U.S. The database shows that 1,345 facilities in 47 states store ammonium nitrate. But spot checks of similar state records found that the federal list missed as many as two-thirds of the storage sites, the report said.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy did not respond to a message for comment Tuesday about the Texas legislation, but he earlier told the Waco Tribune-Herald that since the West explosion, he and his staff have inspected every facility in Texas that holds ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The number of ammonium nitrate dealers has dropped from 57 to 43 in that time. About 80 to 90 percent of the ones that remain have facilities that are wood frame, like West Fertilizer Co., he told the paper.
Connealy said the lesson is simple: “We’ve got to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate.”