West Explosion: Not Enough Protections Or Not Enough Oversight?

Elena Craft

There’s been a lot of debate following the West tragedy as to whether a lack of safety protections, lack of coordination and oversight among enforcement agencies, or some combination of both contributed to a system wide failure and 14 deaths with hundreds injured. As we have mentioned before, Texas leads the nation in total fatal occupational injuries, with more than 400 deaths in 2011. And while not every accident can be prevented, it does seem that Texas gets more than its fair share.

In recent reports, some state officials have indicated that the state’s level of oversight for facilities like the one in West is adequate. It is difficult to understand how one could make such bold statements when the cause of the explosion has yet to be determined. Furthermore, some legislators have recommended this legislative session that state environmental laws be weakened. This is in addition to recent budget cuts at the state environmental agency; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) budget was recently cut by $305 million, which reduced the agency by 235 full-time employees. Perhaps what some of our officials really mean is that it is not a lack of oversight, but rather a lack of due diligence in enforcing the laws already on the books, laws designed to protect citizens from events like this one.

The Governor of Texas was quoted recently claiming that the state upholds the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But frankly that is not quite true. Acting alone, Texas recently refused to abide by laws on permitting regulations for greenhouse gas emissions.  In fact, the state sent an aggressive letter to EPA stating that “On behalf of the state of Texas, we write to inform you that Texas has neither the authority nor the intention of interpreting, ignoring, or amending its laws in order to compel the permitting of greenhouse gas emissions.”  EPA actually had to devise a federal implementation plan for greenhouse gas emissions, so that any new facilities built in the state of Texas could in fact work with a legal permit. Currently, facilities that need a greenhouse gas permit must apply to EPA rather than to TCEQ, even though it is Texas’ responsibility.

In assessing the causes of the West tragedy and whether they could have been prevented, it is worth asking these questions:

  • Would this have happened had state agencies been more diligent in making routine investigations?
  • Would this have happened had the state been more diligent in reporting the facility’s compliance history?
  • Would fewer people have died or fewer homes been destroyed if Texas had siting requirements limiting the distance between the community and the plant?

As the investigation into this tragedy continues, we’ll learn more about what might have helped to prevent it. My hope is that we’ll use what we learn to ensure that this tragedy never happens again. In the meantime, we owe a great deal of gratitude to the folks who deal with the fallout from catastrophes like West on a daily basis. Many of the 14 victims in the West, Texas fertilizer explosion were first responders, and many of them were volunteers.  Thank you to all of our doctors, nurses, EMTs, police officers and service men and women who work day in and day out to help save lives, especially in the face of uncertainties and dangers that may exist.

This post originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog