The West fertilizer blast that killed 15 people will face more scrutiny over the next year from Texas lawmakers who could strengthen state regulations surrounding chemical facility safety and inspections, according to a list of House priorities released on Jan. 31.
Republican House Speaker Joe Straus also directed a review of first responders in rural areas dependent on volunteer units such as in West, where most of the victims who rushed toward the April 17 blast at West Fertilizer Co. were volunteer firefighters.
More permitting for chemical facilities, however, won’t likely come in the aftermath of one of the deadliest U.S. plant explosions in recent years.
El Paso Democrat Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said his panel is instead focusing on giving more oversight authority to current agencies. State inspectors, for example, could be given more power to enter chemical plants.
Last fall, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy testified that several large fertilizer chemical plants in Texas turned away inspectors following the West blast.
“’I'm not looking at a whole bunch of regulation, or raising money through permit fees or overburdening businesses,” Pickett said. “But I think there definitely needs to be a few changes so we can hopefully avoid situations like this.”
The explosion injured an additional 200 people and caused more than $100 million in damages. Investigators have not yet determined a single cause or ruled out criminal charges
Investigating the West blast is among dozens of issues Straus ordered lawmakers to study before returning to the Capitol next year. Known as interim charges, the list also includes monitoring the federal health care marketplace in Texas and reviewing how 17-year-olds are considered adults in the state criminal justice system.
“I am confident that we can continue to address these issues in a responsible, bipartisan way,” Straus said in a statement.
Pickett’s committee already held two meetings last year following the West explosion. Texas has no state fire code, and Connealy’s office lacks the power to make unannounced inspections of businesses or compel facilities to open their doors.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Connealy’s office have said they’ve narrowed the initial fire that sparked the explosion to three possible causes: a battery-powered golf cart, an electrical system in the plant or a criminal act.
Authorities say a fire inside one of the storage buildings at West Fertilizer led to the detonation of ammonium nitrate, a commonly used fertilizer that can be unsafe when stored improperly. Myriad state and federal agencies are also examining the incident for recommendations on how to improve the storage of ammonium nitrate and its potential hazards.
Written by Paul J. Weber