Feds say West explosion could have been prevented, share findings with town
The fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people last year in a tiny Texas town could have been prevented, even if it's still not clear what started an initial fire that triggered the blast, federal officials said Tuesday.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced its findings after a year of investigating the blast in West, Texas, that also injured 200 and decimated parts of the town.
The safety board said the owners of West Fertilizer Co. failed to safely store hazardous chemicals or prepare for a potential disaster. The board also said several levels of federal, state and local government missed opportunities to prevent the tragedy.
"It should never have occurred," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chairman of the safety board, which does not have any regulatory authority.
A meeting was held in West on Tuesday night, where residents learned more at a town meeting, and the CSB reiterated its findings.
As many as 34 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated inside West Fertilizer Co. It's a chemical commonly used in fertilizer and as an industrial explosive, but it is dangerous under certain conditions or in the wrong hands.
The plant in West had 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in wooden containers inside a wooden building with no sprinkler system, investigators said Tuesday. There was more ammonium nitrate in a rail car outside the building.
The meeting Tuesday had a somber beginning. The names of those who were killed in the explosion were read, and then a moment of silence was held.
It was followed by the information residents have been waiting a year to hear.
"I think our community is just looking for some answers,” said John Crowder, who lost his home in the explosion. “It's not that we're expecting particular answers; we just want some answers."
Crowder and more than 100 others filled the West Community Center for the meeting with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Hearing investigators tell those in attendance that the massive blast from the chemical plant that killed 15 people, including 12 volunteer firefighters, could have been prevented, didn't sit well.
"I think there's probably room for a lot of different regulations, and we usually don't think about all those regulations until you have to think about ‘em,” said Crowder.
Then there was the fact that the plant had been there for more than 50 years, allowing the community to become almost too comfortable with it.
"In a lot of cases, the communities are built up to the fence line, and they're impacted almost as severely as those working inside the fence,” said Johnnie Banks, lead CSB investigator.
“Does that need to change?” FOX 4 asked.
“We would hope that there would be some thinking that goes into the zoning and land use planning process,” said Banks.
Despite investigations that have yielded information about safety deficiencies at the plant and voluntary safety steps taken by the nation's fertilizer industry, not a single state or federal law requiring change has been passed since April 17, 2013.
A separate, ongoing investigation by federal and state officials has narrowed the possible causes of the fire to three things: a golf cart battery, an electrical system or a criminal act. No one has been charged in connection with the blast.
Moure-Eraso said federal, state and local agencies could all do more. He said he believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enough authority already to require companies to follow stricter safety guidelines.
In Texas, companies can still store hazardous chemicals in flammable wooden containers in buildings without sprinklers, and volunteer firefighters like the dozen who rushed into the West plant still aren't required to train how to fight such fires.
Moure-Eraso suggested that Texas could pass a state fire code or change state law to allow small counties to enact their own, and said officials in McLennan County, where West is located, could have done more to prepare an emergency response plan for the plant.
But he laid the ultimate responsibility for preventing the disaster on West Fertilizer Co.
"What the regulators do is basically monitor what is happening, but the primary responsibility has to be for whoever is putting this chemical in commerce," Moure-Eraso said. "The regulators themselves are not the ones that caused this thing."
A spokesman for the owners of the plant did not immediately respond to a message. The plant's owners have denied the allegations of dozens of residents and companies suing them in civil court, saying the plant was negligent in how it handled and stored ammonium nitrate. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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