Three years and nine months after an April 2013 ammonium nitrate explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people, all but three of them emergency responders, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put new rules in place to prevent a disaster like it from ever happening again.
Those rules were among the last official acts of the outgoing Obama administration. Within one week of taking office in January 2017, President Trump put that EPA action on hold.
Since then the new rules regulating how companies store dangerous chemicals became bogged down in a tenacious legal fight. That appeared to be coming to a resolution when, in August 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court issued a ruling vacating the EPA's delaying action on enforcement.
In November 2019, the Trump administration made the legal argument mute by officially repealing many of the risk management requirements it found costly and burdensome. Gone are many of the requirements that industry coordinate response needs with local emergency planning and response organizations.
Also rescinded are provisions that would have allowed greater public access to that planning and information about the hazards involved. And, more than six years after the disaster in West, all EPA accident prevention programs are now suspended until further study coordinated with agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can be conducted.
West Mayor Tommy Muska told the Dallas Morning News that he still hopes a compromise can be reached.
"By the time I got [the Obama rules] in my hands, it was already part of the Trump administration, and they shelved it," Muska said. "I was somewhat disappointed. I would love for them to revisit some of those processes that go into chemical storage."
To be sure, sharing the inventory of chemical plants with the general public tends to be controversial. The U.S. hazardous chemical reporting program, known as Tier II, is meant to alert residents to dangers in their communities and to inform planning that could prevent fatalities and injuries. Technically, that information is available upon request by any member of the public.
The press release issued by EPA announcing its action in November addressed that concern. Other federal agencies warned EPA that the open-ended information disclosure provisions to allow anonymous access to sensitive chemical facility information "could assist terrorists in selecting targets and/or increase the severity of an attack."
EPA maintains that no less safety information will be available to first responders than prior to the 2017 proposal.
"The revisions in this rule, based on a careful analysis of over a decade of data are designed to drive effective emergency planning and continue to support the long-term trend of fewer significant chemical accidents – a trend that has continued since the original rule was finalized in 1996," the EPA release states.
For Muska, the issue about the West disaster is not what kind of material was stored. The problem came from the way it was stored.
"If the ammonium nitrate had been stored in a noncombustible building back then, we wouldn't be having this conversation now," Muska said.
A fact sheet issued by the EPA referred to an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms following the explosion in West that ruled out all accidental and natural causes for the disaster. The ATF described the fire as "incendiary, a criminal act."
However, nobody has been charged with a crime in the explosion and fire.
"Can you even call it an alleged crime if there is no evidence other than the investigator's supposition?" David White, then publisher of Industrial Fire World, said in his column for the Summer 2016 issue.
White addressed a public meeting conducted in West by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to release its preliminary report about the incident.
"I want the government or industry to do some research because I want to know why at West we had one building full of ammonium nitrate explode and kill a bunch of people, yet we had another one catch fire not that far away that did not." That other fire occurred in July 2009 at fertilizer plant in Bryan, TX storing more than 18 times the ammonium nitrate found at West.
Glen P. Corbett, an associate professor of fire sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told the same gathering that the handling of ammonium nitrate tends to be a "bi-polar issue."
"On one hand we think of it as this innocuous fertilizer and, on the other hand, we think of it as an explosive," he said. "The (fire) code reflects that sort of ambiguity."
He noted that little research exists on ammonium nitrate in its working "habitat," such as storage or handling.
The chance of that further research happening seems slim given the political backing behind the EPA's actions. Endorsements from five congressmen and three state attorneys general were included in the official press release.
"I am grateful to the EPA for making the changes necessary to get the Risk Management Plan rule back in line with public safety and a proper balance of power between the state and federal authorities," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said.
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