Reviewing Texas State Laws Regarding the Safe Handling of Hazardous Materials Following the West Fertilizer Plant Fire

June 24, 2013

texas capitol.jpgAccording to an article published by the San Antonio Express-News, there are 16 fertilizer production sites in Texas similar to the West Fertilizer Co. plant that received nationwide attention after it caught fire causing approximately 60,000 of ammonium nitrate to blow up, killing 15 people and injuring more than 200 in April 2013. In addition, Texas state officials also revealed that 129 facilities in Texas store at least 5 tons of ammonium nitrate and other potentially explosive materials. Even though some of the 16 plants are located in rural areas away from schools and residences, the incident at the West plant brought attention to the current federal and state law regarding the arguably insufficient regulation of potentially hazardous chemicals.

Notably, West Fertilizer was fined in 2011 for failing to safely transport potentially lethal tanks of anhydrous ammonia. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company for failing to failing to maintain adequate risk management plans and venting ammonia into the air without obtaining permit. Finally, according to OSHA documents, the West Fertilizer was last inspected in 1985.

On June 17, 2013, the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held a second hearing since the West Fertilizer Co. plant fire, hoping to prevent another such disaster. During the hearing, lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Pickett who is the chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, reviewed the existing rules in place for the safe handling of hazardous materials to determine whether Texas state laws need to be more strict and whether more oversight is needed.

Various agencies bear responsibility for oversight in the regulation and operation of facilities such as the West plant, including the Department of Public Safety, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Emergency Management Council, the Office of the Texas State Chemist, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Department of State Health Services, and the Texas State Fire Marshall's Office. Representatives from each of these agencies were invited to testify at the initial April 30th hearing and the June 17th hearing.

Unfortunately, an investigation following the West explosion revealed that no one of the state agencies list above had or exercised oversight of potentially dangerous facilities. This is the case despite the fact the federal law requires businesses to report their inventory of certain toxic and hazardous materials to state and local officials.

Following the June 17th hearing, Rep. Joe Pickett stated that what the lawmakers needed to do to protect the public was mostly administrative and if there were any changes to laws or statutes needed, they would be minimal. Specifically, during the hearing, Pickett asked top public safety officials in Texas to provide more information to the public, In addition, lawmakers directed the State Fire Marshal to develop an online database which would allow residents to quickly find the 16 fertilizer-mixing plants to determine the chemicals housed at each plant.

According to an article in the The New York Times, at more than 400 annual fatalities, Texas has the highest number of workplace fatalities of any state in the country for most of the last ten years. At the same time, from May 2007 to May 2012, fires and explosions at the more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants in Texas have cost the state of Texas more property damage than all other states combined. Finally, compared with the nation's second largest number of high-risk sites, Texas had more than 3 times the number of accidents, 4 times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

If you have suffered serious injuries or a loved one has been wrongfully killed at the workplace, make sure your interests and the interest of your family are protected. Contact the San Antonio personal injuries lawyers at 1-800-862-1260, and we can help.

Sources:

Texas lawmakers review laws after West plant blast, San Antonio Express-News

Lawmakers: Put dangerous chemical site info online, by Bill Weissert, San Antonio Express-News

Scope of threat in West a surprise to feds, by Patricia Kilday Hart, The Houston Chronicle

After Plant Explosion, Texas Remains Wary of Regulation, by Ian Urbina, Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz, The New York Times