On April 17, 2013, Tommy Muska, a volunteer firefighter and the mayor of West, Texas, explained what had happened in his town.
“At approximately 7:30, the West fertilizer plant was on fire. Fully consumed,” he said. “At approximately 7:55 the plant exploded. Fifty to 60 houses in a five-block area radius were damaged. Heavily damaged.”
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the fire and explosion at the central Texas fertilizer plant. The blast killed 15 people and damaged more than 150 buildings. From a regulatory standpoint, what has happened to make sure that this type of catastrophe doesn't happen again?
“The short answer is: very little,” says Thomas O. McGarity, professor of administrative and environmental law at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wrote some guidelines, but basically did very little. Did nothing really, beyond that. The Environmental Protection Agency did amend its process of safety or risk management guidelines that would prevent explosions – required a few more training sessions, and that sort of thing. Really I think they did improve things somewhat, though they did not address the precise substance, which was ammonium nitrate, that blew up at the plant.”
After the 2013 tragedy, President Barack Obama wrote an executive order instructing agencies to review the conditions that could lead to explosions like the one in West.
The EPA came up with regulations to increase coordination between companies and their communities, require third-party audits, and update emergency procedures. Those regulations were set to go into effect in 2017, but the agency decided to put them on hold to reevaluate them.
“The Trump administration wants to pull back anything that the Obama administration did and see whether they can do it differently,” McGarity says. “They are relooking at it while they postpone the effective date for 2019 now.”
The EPA regulations would have addressed some serious problems that rural fertilizer plants and fertilizer storage facilities raised. That’s why McGarity says they need to be put into effect.
He says that’s an uphill battle, though.
“It’s very difficult these days to write new regulations. There are so many impediments to getting a regulation through the process, reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget,” he says. “It takes years really to write a good regulation and agencies tend to be kind of reluctant to do that.”