Explosion At Texas Plant Renews Concerns About State Environmental Agency

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<a href="http://www.kxan.com/">kxan.com</a>

Unfortunately, Wednesday night’s explosion at West Fertilizer, a plant just north of Waco, Texas is just one more tragedy in a long list of facility disasters in the state of Texas. (See previous posts on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog here and here).

The same questions always arise – how could this accident have been prevented? Who is responsible? What are the long term health implications to those who have survived this catastrophe?

The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is the lead state agency in charge of permitting facilities such as the West plant. We know that the agency investigated the facility in 2006, only after a concerned citizen called to report a strong smell of ammonia. One of the troubling items regarding this complaint is that the agency knew that the smell was ammonia and that it was coming from a fertilizer facility (a deadly omen) and still took 11 days to investigate the complaint. Once the agency did get to the facility, they recognized that the plant was storing large quantities of anhydrous ammonia without a permit.

It turns out that the facility, originally built in 1962, had been grandfathered into the permitting program – the facility was not required to have a permit until September 1, 2004, the date marking the end of the grandfathered permitting period. This means that two years went by where the facility was operating in violation of a permit and completely unnoticed by the state environmental agency.

Another troubling bit of information is that the agency gave the facility an “unclassifiable” rating for their compliance history. Compliance history, as described by the agency, entails both positive and negative factors related to the facility's environmental performance at a site over the past five years—for example, whether at this site this customer has:

  • received an enforcement order, court order, or criminal conviction; related to environmental violations in another state;
  • received a citation for a chronic excessive emissions event;
  • received a notice of violation from the TCEQ;
  • received one or more inspections from the TCEQ (and, if so, the results of those inspections)

Given that the facility had been operating without a permit for two years, one might expect that the facility would have been given an unsatisfactory rating for compliance. An unsatisfactory rating would have triggered additional scrutiny or strengthened permit requirements for the facility. But of course we know that’s not what happened.

While no one questions that accidents happen, even at facilities that do abide by the law, it does seem that Texas gets more than its fair share of tragedies. In fact, Texas leads the nation in total fatal occupational injuries, with over 400 deaths in 2011. And when these tragedies happen at industrial facilities that handle large quantities of toxic and explosive materials, people die. Lives are forever changed.

The deaths in West, as well as all deaths from these kinds of tragedies, are senseless and preventable. In the name of all citizens in the state of Texas whose lives have ended in this tragic way, we implore the TCEQ to:

  • be more diligent with regard to monitoring of facilities – how many more facilities like West exist across the state?
  • hire more investigators since it is obvious that the current rate of facility inspections is woefully inadequate.
  • spend more time protecting the public than fighting against EPA and public health protections, using the saved funds instead for hiring more investigators.

Disclaimer: The video, filmed by a local citizen with his daughter, shows the plant as it explodes into a larger fire.  Not intended for sensitive audiences.

This post originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog

Elena Craft

Elena Craft

Elena, a health scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, is an expert on air toxics issues, focusing specifically on reducing criteria and greenhouse gas emissions from the energy and transportation sectors.

 

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Comments

New York City is America's #1 Most Dirtiest City (TRAVEL+LEISURE), where EDF is based.
While criticizing other Americans, New Yorkers and their media appear to care very little about stopping the horrendous littering/dumping within their "world-class" city, and highly anti-Green behaviors of New York State and City governments.

Thank you for expressing an interest in the work EDF is doing in New York City. There are certainly challenges to living and working in such a large city, but EDF is working hard to make NYC cleaner. The NYC Clean Heat program, for example, is taking strides to reduce soot pollution by helping buildings switch from highly-polluting heating oil to cleaner fuels. Doing this will improve not only the air quality of NYC but the health of New Yorkers. You can read about the progress we have made here.

 

According to a San Antonio news outlet, TCEQ is not responsible for regulating or enforcing safety: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Explosion-s-source-c...

Responsibility for that lies with the federal PHMSA and Texas Office of the State Chemist, who visited the plant recently.

Criticize TCEQ to your heart's content, but it seems you are barking up the wrong tree on this one--rather opportunistically at that.

Thanks for your comment. There is no question that there are multiple layers of responsibility for what happened in West - foremost, the responsibility on the part of the company to conduct business in accordance with all applicable laws. However, that does not mean that TCEQ is absolved from responsibility in this tragedy.

First off, the facility operated from 2004-2006 without a permit – it is in fact the responsibility of the agency to “ensure consistent, just, and timely enforcement when environmental laws are violated.” The facility might still have been operating without a permit had a resident not filed a complaint in 2006 about the smell of ammonia at the plant.

Second, the agency never visited the facility again after the air permit had been obtained. In seven years, the agency never went back to check in on a facility that had been in violation of its permit. And maybe most importantly, time and time again across the state we experience preventable disasters like the one in West – a few can be found on previous posts here and here.

Texas leads the nation in number of worker fatalities. When these accidents happen, good people die. Better coordination is needed across the team of owners, plant operators and government agencies so that these tragedies don’t happen – and that includes TCEQ.

That's all well and good, but TCEQ's mission is related to emissions. I'm not arguing with any criticism on that count. But the argument in the blog post and the response to my earlier comment seem to conflate emissions and safety regulations. If the topic is safety, why criticize TCEQ and not PHMSA or the State Chemist? In terms of regulators that may or may not have been able to prevent this tragedy, it seems to me that the latter were much better equipped. Pointing the finger at TCEQ is a distraction from making any meaningful reforms or changes related to workplace safety, where TCEQ has no authority.

I understand your point and yes, other agencies had a role in preventing this disaster, including the Office of State Chemist and PHMSA. The OSC has around 50 folks working there – the office was originally established back in the 1800s to handle land and water disputes. PHMSA was created in 2004. I called out TCEQ specifically given their extensive history of handling safety issues and regulating permits – they are also the largest agency involved with around 3000 staff.

When safety is compromised, there is an increased risk for emission events and for disasters to happen, especially when you are talking about facilities that handle hazardous or toxic materials or explosive (!) materials.

There are good people who work at TCEQ – that does not mean that the agency couldn’t do a better job of inspecting facilities on a more regular basis or making sure that facilities in operation have valid permits. You can reach me at ecraft@edf.org if you’d like to further discuss the role of OSC and PHMSA in this tragic event.