Exploded fertilizer plant had prior regulatory issues

Firefighters use flashlights to search a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, in this photo made early...
Firefighters use flashlights to search a destroyed apartment complex near a fertilizer plant that exploded earlier in West, Texas, in this photo made early...
AP Photo/LM Otero

Wednesday night, the small town of West, Texas was rocked by a massive explosion at the local fertilizer plant owned by West Fertilizer Co. where more than 160 people were wounded by the blast, and as many as 15 may have been killed. The explosion may have also released dangerous levels of anhydrous ammonia, which can cause severe burns and even death, into the surrounding area.

The federal Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has announced that it is sending a “large investigation team” to investigate the cause of the explosion. Additionally, President Obama and the state’s Republican Governor, Rick Perry, have promised that state and federal authorities will help manage the aftermath of the disaster. An evacuation has been ordered for the entire town of West.

“My Administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue,” said President Obama in a statement.

While a disaster of similar magnitude has never before occurred at the West Fertilizer Co., the plant has long had a checkered history when it comes to workplace safety and regulatory compliance.

In August 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the company $2,300 for failing to comply with federal safety regulations. The EPA had found that the plant did not have an adequate risk management plan to guard against chemical accidents, according to documents obtained by local television station WFAA-TV.

Around the same time, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated West Fertilizer Co. over complaints of a “strong ammonia smell” of a nearby residential area. In response to questioning from federal and local authorities, the company said there was no risk of a fire or explosion at the plant. Though the EPA fined the plant, it was allowed to continue its operations.

Even before the explosion, West Fertilizer Co. put the lie to its claims about the low risk of a fire as early as two months ago. In mid-February of this year, a nearby middle school was forced to evacuate [PDF] due to a “concerning fire” at the plant.

While the company ran afoul of some governmental departments, other agencies failed to inspect it at all. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not appear to have investigated the plant at any point in the past five years.

Enforcement of workplace safety and workplace environmental standards is generally fairly weak in the United States. OSHA in particular lacks the resources to aggressively police workplaces; in fact, “OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years and state OSHA inspectors could inspect one every 67 years,” according to a 2011 report by In These Times’ Mike Elk.

The CSB also struggles to provide effectively investigate and remedy chemical accidents, according to a recent report from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI).

“Last year, the board released two case studies. So far this year, it has issued one full report and one case study,” according to the CPI report, which suggests the CSB suffers from low productivity and an inability to push others into enacting its recommendations.

There have been 17 other major fertilizer plant explosions in the world since 1921, according to data collected by the GuardianOut of those 17, five of them occurred in the United States, including the devastating 1947 Texas City, Tx. fertilizer explosion. The blast killed 581 people, the highest fatality count from a fertilizer explosion in history. The day before the West, Texas explosion was the 66th anniversary of the disaster.

Representatives of West Fertilizer Co. did not respond to a request for comment.