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Senate Hearing on West Fertilizer Explosion: Botched Regulation and Enforcement

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Federal lawmakers want better regulation and enforcement of potentially explosive fertilizer chemicals. Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works promised a new urgency among federal regulators to prevent a disaster like the explosion in West from happening again. 

At a senate committee hearing in Washington this morning, Texas A&M safety expert Dr. Sam Mannan testified there are existing OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules about storing ammonium nitrate, but they’re not enforced.  He told the committee OSHA requires the fertilizer be stored in a separate building or separated by approved-type firewalls.

“If they had followed that, my guess is the probability of this incident would have been almost none,” Mannan said during questioning by committee members.

The plant in West stored the ammonium nitrate in wooden bins and had no sprinkler system. Mannan says that certainly would have raised flags with diligent inspectors. But, OSHA last inspected the West Fertilizer plant in 1985.

Testimony revealed it was recommended in 2002 that the Environmental Protection Agency add ammonium nitrate to the list of regulated chemicals, but that was not done. Senator Barbara Boxer accused the EPA of a lack of urgency and nonchalance.

Fifteen people died in the West Fertilizer plant explosion in April. 

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.