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West explosion: Texas inches to tighter rules 2 years after fertilizer blast

State lawmakers gave preliminary approval for stricter storage requirements for the highly flammable ammonium nitrate

By Eva Ruth Moravec
The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — One chamber of the Texas Legislature passed the first measure to regulate the storage of chemicals since a fertilizer plant exploded in the town of West more than two years ago, killing 15 people and devastating a wide area around the plant.

The Texas House gave preliminary approval to strengthening some rules for storing ammonium nitrate, a highly flammable but commonly used chemical in agricultural fertilizers.

The proposal was advanced by Republican Rep. Kyle Kacal, whose district includes West, where the explosion on April 17, 2013 destroyed a large swath of the town. The fire at the West Fertilizer Co. ignited in a seed room and quickly engulfed an area where ammonium nitrate was stored in wooden containers.

The chemical caused a massive detonation, an investigation by the State Fire Marshals’ Office and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives revealed. Authorities never determined how the fire started in the seed room.

The bill passed Friday — which still must pass the state Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott— would give local fire marshals the power to inspect facilities and order owners to make changes if any conditions in the facility could cause a fire or explosion. The proposal would require that ammonium nitrate be stored separate from combustible materials.

It would also require that facilities report hazardous chemicals to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which then must make the chemical storage information public.

The measure is “good enough for West,” Kacal said.

But other lawmakers said Texas has not passed tougher measures because it is concerned they could harm business. Texas has frequently touted its strong economic and job growth, business-friendly climate and low regulations as reasons why businesses from other states should relocate to Texas.

“My fear was, and is — Did we learn our lesson, and is this enough? I don’t believe so,” said El Paso Democratic Rep. Joe Pickett, who chaired an interim panel that studied the disaster.

While the plant explosion occurred as lawmakers were meeting in 2013, Pickett said his committee deliberately moved slowly to recommend changes to state law. They held many multi-agency hearings before releasing a report in January, and Pickett said he expected the measures to be approved quickly

The federal government also investigated the explosion but has not made any changes related to ammonium nitrate storage.

Friday’s voice vote was the first for any of the handful of bills related to the disaster, and little movement is expected on the other proposals.

A measure by Pickett would give inspection and enforcement power over storage facilities to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, but that bill hasn’t advanced, he said.

Another of the stalled bills was proposed by Austin Democratic Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and would require any plant with ammonium nitrate to carry liability insurance.

But, because even a small amount of ammonium nitrate is explosive, Rodriguez said he’s had difficulties getting agreement on how much of the chemical should trigger more insurance, and the bill is stuck in committee.

The owners of the West Fertilizer Co. had $1 million in liability coverage, but the damage from the explosion that caused a crater 90 feet wide and 10 feet deep exceeded $200 million.

Kacal said West citizens were thankful and recovering after the blast that injured about 200 people and destroyed 500 homes.

“We have moved mountains,” Kacal said when asked how the town is doing now. “It’s a very resilient, hard-working community.”