Texas officials on fertilizer plant explosion: Nothing to see here

An investigator looks over a destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, May 2, 2013. Investigators face a slew of challenges in figuring out what...
An investigator looks over a destroyed fertilizer plant in West, Texas, Thursday, May 2, 2013. Investigators face a slew of challenges in figuring out what...
AP Photo/LM Otero, Pool

Two weeks after a fertilizer plant explosion killed 14 and left hundreds more homeless or wounded in West, Texas, local officials investigating its cause are holding back on directing blame for the disaster. On Wednesday, the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety held a hearing to determine what regulations and safety procedures are in place to prevent similar catastrophes—and why they didn’t prevent this one.

“This is a learning process for the community at large,” said Democratic committee chair Joe Pickett, not an opportunity to “point fingers.”

And indeed, the official response to the disaster thus far has included very little in the way of pointed fingers. Republican Gov. Rick Perry was particularly insistent that regulatory gaps were not to blame.

“Through their elected officials [people] clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight,” he told the Associated Press. By the end of the committee hearing, Pickett appeared sympathetic to that viewpoint.

“I was pleased to find out what I already knew,” he said of the hearing. “Texas is prepared. We’ve got procedures in place.”

Not everyone agrees. Phillip Martin, political director for the left-leaning non-profit Progress Texas,  criticized “Texas’ severe lack of regulation of industrial plants and dangerous chemicals” in a statement released after the hearing.

“The best path forward for state agencies and the legislature is to continue the work started by Chairman Pickett today—identify where the gaps in regulation exist, work together cooperatively to determine the best solutions for closing those gaps, and pass legislation that properly regulates our state’s industrial facilities,” he said.

Among the evidence of regulatory gaps: During the hearing, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy revealed that the town of West lacked a local fire marshal, while Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told the committee, “There’s no overarching plan to educate people of what’s in their areas.” McCraw also said that his department does not conduct surveys of fertilizer plants, leaving it up to local officials.

Oversight and preparedness is “a local up,” he said. “It’s not a state down.”

ThinkProgress has a more comprehensive roundup of findings from the hearing. In its aftermath, journalists and researchers have uncovered yet more holes in the fertilizer plant’s oversight: West Fertilizer Co. received a “retail exemption,” subjecting it to more lenient oversight, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The plant also had a history of security problems, according to a Friday Reuters report. Over the past twelve years, law enforcement reportedly “responded to at least 11 reports of burglaries and five separate ammonia leaks” at the plant.

The Texas State Fire Marshal’s office expects to conclude its investigation of the causes of the explosion around May 10. The federal Chemical Safety Board, which is also investigating the blast, was not available for comment. In the meantime, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chair Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has announced that the committee will conduct its own inquiry into the disaster, and the owner of the fertilizer plant faces at least one civil suit from a victim of the explosion seeking damages.

You can watch footage of the afflicted area on the Facebook page for the Chemical Safety Board’s official investigation.