An overwhelming body of information has accumulated since the April 17 explosion in West to guide state legislators on the required next steps to prevent similar tragedies. Those steps do not include a return to business as usual.
The West explosion made clear that a hands-off oversight philosophy doesn’t work when extremely dangerous chemicals are in the mix. But key state legislators still don’t get it. Several cling to the notion that existing laws are adequate and that industry does its best when left to police itself with minimal government intervention.
An explosion of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer on West’s outskirts killed 15, injured more than 300 and destroyed hundreds of structures. Since then, this newspaper has exposed major gaps in local, state and federal oversight.
More than 140 Texas facilities report having ammonium nitrate on site, Dallas Morning News staff writer Brandon Formby reported recently. At a hearing of the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, officials said five companies storing ammonium nitrate refused to allow fire marshals to inspect their facilities. Two railroads have not shared requested data on their ammonium nitrate shipments.
When state law can’t force them to comply, that alone should be warning enough that something needs to change.
Committee members previously have listened to the heads of various oversight agencies identify the many gaps in procedures that allowed the West Fertilizer Co. to store large amounts of ammonium nitrate without adequate inspection and regulation.
Leaving those oversight laws as currently written will not fix the problem. It will only perpetuate the buck-passing and ensure that problems at other facilities fail to get corrected.
Legislators also are aware that insurance regulations fail to ensure victims are adequately compensated for their losses. West Fertilizer had only $1 million in coverage, while damages from the explosion are estimated to be more than a hundred times that amount.
Since the explosion, the Texas Department of Insurance has asked 95 companies and 32 insurers about the level of coverage for other facilities with ammonium nitrate. Ten fertilizer companies and four insurers responded, Formby reported.
Fire safety and setback rules clearly were inadequate in West. Security was abysmal despite easily accessible information about the popularity of ammonium nitrate as a key ingredient in terrorist attacks.
In spite of such glaring inadequacies, legislators like state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, still make light of the notion of tighter regulation and oversight. “If we’re not careful, we could get like the federal government putting diapers on cows,” he said.
Pardon us if we don't view this as a joking matter. We understand the hands-off regulatory philosophy guiding many conservative lawmakers. But sometimes leadership requires a gut check and reassessment of the values that really matter.
The Dallas Morning News