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As West Explosion Anniversary Nears, State Fire Marshal Urges Safety Changes

Last April's fertilizer plant explosion in West killed 15 people.

This week's anniversary of the West fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people brought Texas lawmakers back to the Capitol in Austin to consider tougher oversight of chemical facilities.

Investigators told a Texas House committee Monday that they're still not sure what sparked the fire.

Terrence Henry from StateImpact Texas, a public radio reporting project, has more details:

It could have been electrical, or a malfunctioning golf cart battery, or it could have been started on purpose. But, without question, the cause of the destructive blast was ammonium nitrate, investigators said. The fertilizer had been legally stored in a wooden building with no sprinkler system.

Chris Connealy, the state fire marshal, told legislators that the law needs to changed to prevent something like the West explosion from happening again.

“There's two choices,” Connealy said. “If you want to keep ammonium nitrate in a combustible facility, you need to put fire sprinklers in there. An alternative that doesn't involve sprinklers, but still meets best practices, is to build a non-combustible storage bin for the ammonium nitrate."

Texas doesn't have a statewide fire code, and many rural counties would not be able to enforce rules for sprinklers or storage without one. There are dozens of fertilizer facilities in Texas similar to the one that exploded in West. Representatives from other state agencies also said first responders and local officials need more training.

Whatever new rules the committee comes up with will have to wait. The legislature doesn't begin its next session until January.

Original post:  The Associated Press reports: A House committee is scheduled Monday to again scrutinize the April 17 blast at West Fertilizer Co. Most killed were firefighters and first responders, and another 200 people were injured.
Investigators have still not determined a single cause of the explosion.
The hearing marks the third time the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee will meet to discuss the aftermath of one of the deadliest U.S. plant explosions in recent years.
Chairman Joe Pickett has said lawmakers are unlikely to impose more permitting on chemical plants. The El Paso Democrat has instead suggested that more power could be given to state inspectors.

No regulatory changes so far

Terrence Henry from StateImpact Texas, a public radio reporting project, has more:

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee is looking into possible changes to state law to prevent a disaster like West from happening again.

Whatever is discussed at Monday’s meeting will take time to actually become law. Texas lawmakers won't get together for their next session until January.

Since the fire and explosion in West, there have been no regulatory changes in Texas. But committee chair Joe Pickett of El Paso hopes the legislature can do something during the next session. He wants more authority given to the state fire marshal's office to regulate fertilizer plants.

"How do you propose to we store the ammonium nitrate? Where? What type of facilities?  How do we do that specifically? So that's the next step, to actually put all of that detail on paper and put it out to the world."

More on ammonium nitrate

Reuters reports: Ammonium nitrate is a dry fertilizer mixed with other fertilizers such as phosphate and applied to crops to promote growth. It can be combustible under certain conditions, and was used as an ingredient in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that left 168 people dead.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.