Disaster sparks safety effort

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Good news came out of Austin recently: House Speaker Joe Straus directed a key committee to dive back into questions about the fertilizer plant explosion in West and how the state could prevent another such deadly disaster.

The attention is critical to plugging regulatory gaps that leave Texans vulnerable to potential industrial time bombs in their communities.

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held hearings last year that exposed and clarified shortcomings that led to the 15 deaths in West and destruction of hundreds of homes and buildings. Give committee chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, credit for that effort and sense of urgency. Now comes the hard part of mapping out legislation that balances the expertise of safety and regulation experts against the influence of the well-funded chemical lobby.

Finding a workable equation on inspections and enforcement — one that protects unsuspecting Texans and survives the lawmaking gantlet — is tricky politically. Straus’ charge to Pickett’s committee means important prep work will be done in the House before the next Legislature convenes in January.

The speaker’s charge to Pickett’s committee follows directives that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst issued for the Senate last year, with one big difference: Dewhurst asked lawmakers on his side of the Capitol to delve into insurance requirements for companies handling ammonium nitrate, the chemical that detonated in West. Insurance is a critical issue, and one that Straus did not specifically address recently.

Straus should follow up with a charge to the House Insurance Committee, or Pickett should declare his panel’s intent to zero in on the issue of minimum liability insurance for industries that handle any volatile chemical.

Considering West Fertilizer’s paltry $1 million insurance policy — and the estimated $100 million in property damage caused by that plant’s explosion April 17 — it’s clear that hazardous industries can now duck responsibility for mayhem they cause. That won’t pass the smell test for everyday Texans, who must buy reasonable liability minimums for their cars and trucks. Mandatory insurance is not a foreign concept.

Interim hearings in both the House and Senate should build consensus to nail down other key reforms, such as uniform fire codes for all counties that host dangerous industrial activity. Lawmakers should also ensure that information collected on hazardous industries is shared across agencies including the Department of Public Safety, Office of the Texas State Chemist, Department of Health Services and Commission on Environmental Quality. Stove-piped information gathering does not serve the public’s interest.

After the West tragedy last year, anti-regulatory rhetoric blew through Austin for a spell. Defenders of the status quo argued that this is a dangerous world and stuff happens.

Yes, industrial accidents do happen, even despite the best efforts of business and government working together. It’s good to see Straus and Dewhurst both take up the posture that government’s best effort is yet to come.

— The Dallas Morning News


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