Year after Texas plant blast, no new safety laws

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by NOMAAN MERCHANT / AP

Associated Press

Posted on April 22, 2014 at 11:03 AM

DALLAS -- It has been a year since a fire caused a huge explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed 15 people, yet companies in the state can still store hazardous chemicals in flammable wooden containers in buildings without sprinklers and volunteer firefighters like those who rushed into that plant still aren't required to train how to fight such fires.

Despite investigations that have yielded new information about safety deficiencies at the plant in West and voluntary safety steps taken by the fertilizer industry, there hasn't been a single state or federal law passed since the explosion requiring change.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is leading one of those investigations, will present its findings and recommendations at a meeting Tuesday in West, a city of 2,800 people about 70 miles south of Dallas.

The federal agency has interviewed West Fertilizer Co. employees and victims of the explosion and conducted studies of how the blast occurred. A fire at the plant led to conditions that caused the detonation of up to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer component and industrial explosive.

Daniel Horowitz, the board's managing director, told The Associated Press on Monday what some other experts have also said: The plant's storage of ammonium nitrate was potentially dangerous and West's firefighters and residents didn't realize how dangerous a fire there could be.

While key questions remain unanswered, including the exact cause of the fire, "we know more than enough to keep this from happening again," Horowitz said.

He said several developments since the explosion have helped. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued guidelines for the storage of ammonium nitrate and the national industry group for fertilizer producers has created an organization that will offer voluntary inspections of U.S. dealerships.

"What we don't have at this point is any change whatsoever to federal or state mandatory codes," Horowitz said. "Without that, it's still permissible for a company to store ammonium nitrate in wooden bins. It's still permissible for ammonium nitrate to be stored near a school or a hospital."

Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy is traveling to small towns with ammonium nitrate storage facilities to discuss its safe handling and disaster preparation, and his office created a Web page where users can type in their zip codes to see if they live near a storage facility. It doesn't provide the names of facilities and has been little used thus far.

Connealy has said 46 facilities in Texas should be required to install sprinkler systems or retrofit buildings with non-combustible materials. He is working with state lawmakers on a potential bill to be considered by the Legislature when it reconvenes in January.

Texas law still prohibits small counties from adopting a fire code, and the volunteer firefighters who serve much of rural Texas are not required to obtain training on how to deal with fires like the one at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, though many of them do.

The Chemical Safety Board, which has no regulatory authority, held a separate inquiry from the main investigation led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Texas State Fire Marshal. That investigation narrowed the possible causes of the plant fire to three things - a golf cart battery, an electrical system or a criminal act - but didn't go further.

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