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Senator Calls On Governors For Help After West Fertilizer Plant Explosion

BJ Austin

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, wants governors to take action to ensure safe storage of ammonium nitrate.

Investigators say ammonium nitrate stored in wooden crates at the West Fertilizer company was the trigger for the April 17 explosion.  But the cause of an initial fire at the plant remains unknown.

Fifteen people were killed; 12 were first responders.  Nearly 200 people were injured and more than 150 homes and buildings were destroyed.

Boxer held a hearing on the explosion June 27 and promised recommendations to try to prevent another such tragedy.

First on the senator's list is a request to governors . 

"I'm calling on every governor to review applicable policies to ensure the safe storage of ammonium nitrate," Boxer told a Washington DC news conference.  "I've asked EPA to act without delay to update its alert on ammonium nitrate, which was issued in the last century - 1997."

Boxer says the reason she wrote to the governors is because the federal government isn't doing enough right now.

"My hope would be that you would see state legislatures and governors and county supervisors and leaders in the safety community throughout the country work on this, so we have multiple layers of people caring about this," Boxer said.

Boxer says she made a promise to the people of West that she would work to prevent another such explosion.  She plans a second hearing on September or October to keep the pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to make necessary changes.  She says more funding for OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration might help, as well.  OSHA has rules on the books for safe storage of ammonium nitrate, but they are rarely enforced.  The last OSHA inspection of the West Fertilizer Plant was in 1985. 

"We know what has to be done," Boxer said. "Ammonium nitrate has to be stored in a separate facility, and protected from fire, and then people will be protected.  It's not rocket science here." 

State Representative Doc Anderson says Texas is already on it.  The House Homeland Security Committee has  made recommendations, including a website listing ammonium nitrate facilities in Texas, and local signage.

“Have designations and signage so more folks would know within the community, not that it was clandestinely stored, but most folks just weren’t aware, ” Anderson said in a call from the House floor.

Anderson says the committee also wants smaller amounts of the chemical registered with state officials.

Governor Perry’s office says it has not received Boxer's letter yet, but continues to work with local and federal officials following the April 17th blast.   And Tuesday, the governor sent the president a letter asking federal officials to reconsider their denial of major disaster aid to West. 

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.