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Environmental Regulations And Their Role In Preventing Disasters


Texas Matters: A former environmental inspector talks about regulations and their role in industrial safety following the deadly explosion in West, Texas. Also on this show, an update on the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is hitting some speedbumps along the way.

Regulations and industrial safety

On Wednesday night the Texas town of West was rocked by a massive explosion at a Fertilizer plant.

About 54,000 pounds of liquid nitrogen fertilizer was on site when a fire broke out. The local volunteer fire department showed up to fight the blaze and about 25 minutes later it exploded.

It’s being called one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. A middle school across the street was severely damaged, homes in a half mile radius were destroyed and other homes and businesses across the town were damaged.

The Express-News is now reporting that officials have confirmed 12 dead and over 200 injured in the blast.

There are so many unknowns: Did the brave volunteer first responders know the risk of an explosion when they answered that call? Had they been given the proper information about not spraying water on the chemical fire? Could state regulations have prevented this disaster?

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the lead agency in regulating events like this. According to the agency the Adair Fertilizer company was built in 1962 before there were state and federal requirements to obtain authorization for emission of air contaminants. 

As a result, this facility was grandfathered until state law required grandfathered facilities to obtain authorization.

That happened in 2006 after a citizen complained of the noxious smell of ammonia coming from the plant. The TCEQ investigated and issued a notice of violation.

First air permit was issued later that year. The local community was given a chance for public comment or to contest the case, but no one came forward in opposition.

Four months later a second permit was issued and again the town was asked to comment and contest the permit – again no one came forward and voiced opposition.

Today residents of West say they had no idea of the potential for disaster at the fertilizer plant that was next door.

In a YouTube video of a West couple driving through the town immediately after the explosion – looking at the damage – they wonder what could have cause this destruction? They wonder if it was a meteor strike, a plane crash or a meth lab explosion – the local fertilizer plant was thought so safe that it wasn’t even considered.

Federal regulations also appear to have been unable to prevent the disaster.

In 2006 the EPA fined the plant's owners $2,300 for failing to have a risk management assessment that met federal standards.

Adair West Fertilizer then certified that they had corrected the problem and that there was no risk of fire or explosion. According to reporting by the Dallas Morning News, the owners said the worst-case scenario would be a short release of ammonia gas that would not cause any deaths or injuries.

Records reviewed by the Associated Press show the US pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined Adair Grain's West Fertilizer Co. $10,000 last summer for safety violations. The inspector found that the company was transporting the fertilizer without a security plan and that the plant's ammonia tanks were not properly labeled.

How many more potentially explosive fertilizer plants are in Texas surrounded by schools, homes, and nursing homes?

In Texas when it comes to monitoring, regulating and inspecting facilities like the Adair West Fertilizer company it’s the job of the TCEQ. But their focus is on air quality and not potential for a catastrophic explosion.  

Neil Carman is a former inspector for the TCEQ.

"We learned in the 1980s with the disaster in India, at Bhopal, India, where an estimated 10,000 people were killed from a leak of a toxic chemical. So we adopted, through the congress in the 1980s, regulations and reporting on the potential for chemical disasters. Well, we haven't learned our lesson, because this plant never should have been located in a community. It should be, you can see, a mile away from wherever anybody lives."

Also on this episode of Texas Matters:

Keystone XL Pipeline hits a roadblock

It may be a temporary delay in the massive project or could be the end for the pipeline that would carry the petroleum product of the Canadian tar sands to the refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.

On Thursday the state department held what may be the last public hearing on the pipeline. Hundreds of anti-pipeline activists took part in the Grand Island Nebraska hearing.

If approved the pipeline would have to cross East Texas where protestors are looking to stop the project. Jerry Hightower is one of the protestors – he’s also part of a long time local farming family.

"I, like many others, feel the tar sand project as a whole - the extraction of it in Alberta, Canada and now the extraction of it that's occurring in I believe Utah - it's deplorable stuff. Everybody that has looked at it has said it's not good for anything except a handful of rich people to get richer. I don't see that it's going to create any kind of energy independence for our country, it won't refine down into a good enough fuel for us to use in our country by our fuel standards."

National environmental organizations are also opposed to the XL pipeline. This week, Public Citizen issued a report that claims that the pipeline would actually increase gas prices and reduce national energy security.

Tyson Slocum is a researcher for Public Citizen.

"We believe that this pipeline is more about Canadian interests and to serve Canadian interests in getting land-locked Canadian oil to a global market, not just a U.S. market. That global market is increasingly dominated by Chinese interest and that explains the significant level of direct Chinese investment in the Canadian tar sands."

Michael Whatley is the executive vice president for the Consumer Energy Alliance that supports the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

"If you want to export oil to China, the way you do it is you take a pipeline straight from the Canadian oil sands deposits over to the Pacific Coast, load it on a super tanker, and send it over to China. The last thing you are going to do is put it onto a 1,700 mile pipeline, ship it down to the Gulf Coast refineries, put it on a tanker that is not a super tanker, and then send it through the Panama Canal over to China, which is going to cost you a fortune in shipping costs both through the pipeline and on shipping for it. It is far more likely to go to China if we don't build the pipeline than if we do."

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi