Investigation - West recovery - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Investigation - West recovery

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The one-year anniversary of the West explosion is coming up this week, and some are questioning if we are any safer than we were a year ago.

FOX 4 learned the answer depends on who you ask. Many believe moving too quickly will result in rules and regulations that will hurt business and farmers, but still others say the protections are simply not in place and the public is at risk.

One thing is for sure -- the people of West are recovering, and it is a community on the mend.

You can hear the sounds of progress and healing.

"We are removing debris, separating rocks so they can mow," said Lezah Maitland of the First Baptist Church in Allen.

A group of Allen students spent their spring break lending a hand to the massive cleanup still underway in West.

Volunteers and work crews are all over West rebuilding. But the bigger job is making sure it never happens again, and regulatory changes have been almost nonexistent.

The explosion at the fertilizer storage plant last year killed 15 people, 12 of them volunteer firefighters. The blast injured another 300 people. While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, we do know a lot about the factors involved.

The ammonium nitrate was stored in wooden bins that were combustible. The building had no sprinkler system, and there is still no county or statewide fire code.

"We are not looking back, we are going forward," said Tommy Muska, Mayor of West.

Muska was one of the first responders.

"They have to be careful," said Muska. "We need regulation, yes, but if we over regulate it, then the cost of that is going to go right back to the farmer."

Muska says West wants and needs another fertilizer plant, hopefully one with newer and safer technology, but he is like almost everyone FOX 4 spoke to -- he is opposed to overregulation.

"We did not have all the facts," said Chris Connealy, the Texas State Fire Marshal. "We did not even know where all the ammonium nitrate was in the state."

Connealy has been traveling across the state. He is quick to point out he has no authority to impose any changes.

He can only encourage best practices; in other words, self-policing. So far, inspections have been only voluntary.

The state has identified 96 facilities that store ammonium nitrate. There is now an interactive website where you can put in your zip code and learn if ammonium nitrate is stored near you.

Connealy says his office has determined half of those facilities still have the old wooden storage structures like West.

"That is a concern," said Connealy. "That is not uncommon in what we are finding across the nation."

"How many of those have sprinkler systems?" FOX 4 asked.

"None," said Connealy.

Elena Craft says that is absurd.

"We know the safeguards that should be in place that are not in place," said Craft, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. "These are not new things."

Craft says she is frustrated by the lax approach to safety, and says there are no guarantees what happened in West won't happen again.

"It is irresponsible on the part of the state legislature. It is irresponsible on the part of our state leaders not to be taking action," said Craft. "This has been a ground hog issue. We see things over and over again."

Back in January, the House Speaker instructed a panel at the legislature to start digging into safety issues, everything from inspections to enforcement, and then get back with specific recommendations on how to reduce the likelihood of damage, injury and death.

Rep. Joe Picket of El Paso is Chairman of the Texas Homeland Security Committee. When FOX 4 asked why there has not been a single meeting since the speaker ordered the review, Picket rolled his eyes.

"Well there is a thing in Texas called elections," said Pickett. "Members have been campaigning. I am not into kneejerk reactions."

Pickett says he is confident he will have a bill to introduce by the time the legislature convenes in 2015, almost two years after the explosion.

"These explosions keep happening," said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) "It does not necessarily mean new laws. You are right, but it certainly means we need to enforce the laws we have."

Federal lawmakers are also tackling the issue. Sen. Boxer has made chemical safety a priority, but in Washington, the wheels turn slowly.

Back in West, the community is roaring back. New homes are popping up, and growth is all around. But at least one group questions if Texas will move forward and learn a lesson from the past.

"I think the problem is not necessarily that we don't know what to do, it is that Texas has refused to implement those common sense safeguards," said Elena Craft. "I am not sure what the federal agencies do is going to make a difference in this state."

Pickett's Homeland Security Committee held a hearing in Austin on Monday.

Lawmakers heard from representatives from a lot of different agencies. They testified about training, storage, insurance and inspections.

Pickett says he is concerned about the wooden structures still out there and the state's lack of authority to go in and say change them.

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