Weakening draft bill a mistake

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This newspaper has called for common-sense rules since the April 17, 2013, explosion in West — most of them regarding the handling and storage of ammonium nitrate, the hazardous chemical behind the blast.

For example, we support the idea of warehouse operators adopting industry best practices to avoid the kinds of lapses that contributed to West’s disaster.

But voluntary practices alone can’t substitute for the mandatory safeguards that the Texas Legislature still must enact to reduce ammonium nitrate’s significant dangers.

So we are concerned that lawmakers went overboard recently and weakened a bill designed to make warehouse owners more legally accountable for lax practices.

Legislators might be lulled by a friendly industry advocate who calmly counsels, “Heh, heh, now, let’s not get carried away with this bill.” But what they need always to keep foremost in mind are the horrific images from West.

Remember the towering flames from the West Fertilizer Co. warehouse in the seconds before roughly 30 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in a towering mushroom cloud, killing 15 people.

The giant crater surrounded by tons of twisted metal. The apartment building reduced to splinters. The two schools rattled so violently that their roofs collapsed. The nursing home whose residents huddled in fear as windows and ceilings imploded. Hundreds of acres of wreckage.

Legislators also should recall the rubble just two months ago after an ammonium nitrate warehouse fire in the middle of Athens, in East Texas. Industry best practices don’t include placing storage facilities in the middle of population centers. The Athens disaster was one more example of why mandatory safety requirements are necessary.

Legislators have heard from lobbyists about proposed laws, but how many West officials got a chance to testify? None.

With that slanted input as a road map, members of the House Homeland Security Committee weakened a month-old draft bill — removing proposed penalties for lax storage and handling practices as well as curtailing the State Fire Marshal Office’s inspection authority.

The new draft also would postpone the date for any meaningful rules to take effect until 2016. Further revisions call for forming a committee of government and industry representatives to develop a best-practices approach.

No wonder the revised draft won effusive praise from Donnie Dippel, president of the Texas Ag Industries Association. The registered lobbyist exclaimed: “We really appreciate you taking the fire code out. We really appreciate you taking the penalties out.”

In other words, keep it voluntary.

Voluntary compliance leaves the option not to comply. That’s exactly the option chosen in West Fertilizer’s case. If the memory of a mushroom cloud over a devastated Texas town isn’t enough to jar legislators into action, what will it take?

— The Dallas Morning News


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