Texas lawmakers review laws after West fertilizer plant explosion

June 15, 2013 11:27:17 AM PDT
Texas lawmakers will review existing rules and regulations for the safe handling of hazardous materials to determine whether state laws need to be more stringent after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant highlighted the dangers of these substances.

On Monday, Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, will convene the second hearing since the West Fertilizer Co. plant caught fire and blew up in April, killing 15 people and injuring more than 200.

Some 60,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer, blew up after the heat of the fire destabilized the potentially explosive chemical that had been stored in wooden containers. The incident brought attention to regulation of the chemical, revealing that most current laws -- both state and federal -- are more focused on preventing chemicals from getting into the hands of criminals or terrorists rather than on its safe handling and storage.

"There isn't anybody who says, `it's our responsibility to make sure these places are identified and they are following safe procedures, and here's our plan,"' Pickett, a Democrat from El Paso, told the Dallas Morning News.

The hearing could start a discussion about whether Texas needs to adopt rules that go "above and beyond" federal law, he said.

Officials from the Department of Public Safety and the State Fire Marshal's Office are to testify at the hearing.

Federal law requires companies that store and handle ammonium nitrate to file an annual report detailing the average amount they have on hand daily and their maximum storage capacity. The West Fertilizer Co. completed this requirement. But it appears some of the first responders who were to use the report to prepare for potential problems may not have reviewed the document.

At a May 1 legislative committee meeting, state agencies explained their roles in overseeing the dangerous chemicals. While each had some oversight, none claimed to be responsible for regulating the safe handling and storage of the substances.

If the committee determines the law needs to be changed, that would be taken up in the next regular legislative session in 2015.

Gov. Rick Perry has told The Associated Press he is comfortable with the current oversight, and doesn't believe spending more money on inspections could prevent an explosion such as the one that occurred in West.

But Phillip Martin, research and policy director for the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas, said additional money is needed for inspections.

"Sometimes what the Legislature and the state will do is come up with a Band-Aid solution and tell everybody they fixed the problem so we can move on and stop paying attention," Martin said. "I'm hopeful that is not what comes out of this committee, but it is something that we need to be mindful could happen."
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