Dueling letters mark calls for action over West plant explosion

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

On the same day a congressional leader pressed our nation's governors to enhance oversight of facilities handling ammonium nitrate, Governor Rick Perry wrote his own letter to President Barack Obama.

California Senator Barbara Boxer sent letters to every governor in the country, asking them to review state and local rules regarding the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate. Senator Boxer's letters followed last month's hearing into the April blast that killed 15 and injured hundreds in the central Texas town of West.

Boxer's letter stated, "I urge you to review the applicable requirements in your state, and in the interests of saving lives, adopt policies that you believe will prevent loss of life while allowing the use of ammonium nitrate with appropriate protections or the use of alternatives."

"I made a pledge to the families and I'm not going to stop until there are more protections in place to prevent chemical disasters like the one in West, Texas," Boxer said during a news conference. "People died here, this is not some bureaucratic mistake."

During a June hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, officials with the Chemical Safety Board testified the ammonium nitrate stored at West was kept in wooden containers next to other combustible materials, with no firewalls or sprinklers. CSB officials also testified nationally accepted fire codes regarding the handling and storage of ammonium nitrate are not mandatory at facilities like West.

"So at West these fire code provisions were strictly voluntary and West Fertilizers had not volunteered," CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said during the June hearing.

During a Tuesday news conference, Boxer again chastised the Environmental Protection Agency for not requiring companies to include ammonium nitrate as part of required risk management plans. Boxer also again took the EPA to task for not sending out an alert regarding the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate since 1997.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does require facilities to store ammonium nitrate separately from other combustible materials. However, OSHA had not inspected the West facility since 1985.

"The federal government isn't doing enough right now," Boxer said.

Governor Rick Perry did not respond directly to Boxer's letter or comments. However, Governor Perry did fire off his own letter Tuesday to President Obama. The letter asked the President to reconsider his decision of not issuing a "major disaster" declaration for West. Governor Perry's letter stated the additional federal funds that come with such a declaration are needed to help the town rebuild.

"The long term-term viability of this small Texas city is dependent on your decision," Perry's letter read.

The EPA also sent a statement to Local 2 in response to Boxer's comments:

"It is imperative that chemical plant risks be reduced to the greatest extent possible to avoid tragedies such as those that took place in West, Texas and Geismar, Louisiana. EPA is actively examining existing legal authorities and policies to improve chemical plant safety. EPA is reviewing the 1997 alert to determine any necessary updates for the safe management and storage of ammonium nitrate. We are working with other federal, state and local agencies to explore potential adjustments to reduce risk from chemical substances. EPA intends to work closely with Senator Boxer as well as state and local authorities in order to seek stronger protections to safeguard public health. We are committed to focus on supporting local responders, further efforts by the federal government to advance additional chemical plant safety measures, and standardizing the best practices of industry leaders."

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