Sustained Outrage

This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed at least 14 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

It’s been a week now since the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, Texas, that killed 14 people, injured 160 and leveled part of the town.

Am I the only one who is starting to wonder why we haven’t heard much of anything yet from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about its work so far to get to the bottom of what caused this disaster?

Remember that the CSB announced late last Wednesday night that it was deploying a team to the site, and at least one media report said the small agency had at least a dozen investigators on the scene.

So what you want about the Chemical Safety Board — and the fine recent reporting by the Center for Public Integrity points out some serious issues facing the agency — but the agency is generally one of the more transparent in the federal government. They’ve got a fairly aggressive press office, and it’s unusual for them to parachute into an accident site and not be pretty quickly having media availabilities to outline what they’re doing there and spell out general areas they think will be important going into a new investigation (see for example here and here).

So far, though, I don’t believe we’ve had one single update from the board’s investigation team in West, Texas.

Now, this disaster highlights quite a lot of issues that have been raised during the CSB’s previous investigations here in West Virginia following the 2007 propane explosion that killed four people at the Little General Store in Ghent, the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, and the series of leaks at the DuPont Belle plant that left one worker dead in January 2010. And some media reports are already focused on these issues. For example:

— How accurate and useful are the “risk management plans” that companies are supposed to file with regulators as part of the process of trying to reduce hazards and prepare for potential accidents? Randy Lee Loftis of the Dallas Morning News reported very early on that West Fertilizer’s plan greatly downplayed the potential risks of its facility, and we know from an EPA Inspector General’s report released just last month about much-needed improvements in federal oversight of RMPs.

— Why was this facility last inspected by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1985? Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post has offered some potential explanations for this. But we’ve seen this pattern before in West Virginia (see here, here and here), where OSHA ignores a potentially dangerous facility for years, until someone — or many someones — is hurt or killed. Even when some obscure OSHA policy or politically-motivated congressional rider doesn’t prohibit that agency from acting, OSHA is so underfunded and understaffed that at last count by the AFL-CIO, the agency can inspect all workplaces on average just once every 131 years.

— Firefighters in West, Texas, apparently knew of the presence of dangerous chemicals at the fertilizer facility, but it’s not yet clear how that information played into their response to the initial fire at the facility. In previous incidents here in West Virginia (see here, here and here), emergency response — though heroic — has not always been well-planned and sometimes leads to more risk or even, tragically, more deaths.

Since we hadn’t heard anything from the CSB, I sent their managing director, Daniel Horowitz, some questions about these issues, hoping to get a better idea of which of them would be a focus on the agency’s investigation at West Fertilizer. My request got an odd response. Here it is:

These are reasonable questions but at the current time both the site and the investigation are under the direction of the federal ATF and the state fire marshal. I am referring your questions to those agencies in the event they can provide information.

So, I checked in yesterday with the state fire marshal, and was assured by a spokeswoman that the CSB is working the scene with that office and the ATF. I also checked in with ATF spokewoman Franceska Perot, and was initially told:

I am not up to speed on what their role is. I only know that they are here. I have seen many in scene with “CSB” on their clothing.

Now, remember that the CSB has had many problems in the past with local officials and with other federal agencies who don’t want board teams involved in investigations.  We’ve written about it before here and here, noting the most telling example of a local fire chief who told CSB officials they were “uninvited,” “unwelcome,” “not a piece of the pie,” and “a distraction that has taken time away from the real investigators.” A more recent letter to Congress further outlines these kinds of incidents, and specifically notes four CSB run-ins with the ATF between 2008 and 2010.

When I asked about these previous incidents, ATF’s Perot told me:

I can’t answer for DOJ or other events, I only know they are present and are working in the scene with us. Will see if I can get any answers for you.

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story with the headline, Texas Fertilizer Plant Fell Through Regulatory Cracks, reporting:

One week after the blast, investigators were still not sure how much ammonium nitrate was stored there, whether it had been stored properly and which agencies had been informed about it — even though a host of federal, state and local officials were responsible for regulating and monitoring the plant’s operations and products.

Many safety decisions — including moves in recent years to build homes, schools and a nursing home not far from the decades-old plant — were left to local officials who often did not have the expertise to assess the dangers. And the gaps in the oversight of the plant and a paper trail of records have left the essential question of how and why the ammonium nitrate ignited a mystery.

“The whole thing may have fallen through a number of regulatory cracks,” said a federal official whose agency helped regulate the plant.

It’s important to remember that the Chemical Safety Board is not a regulatory agency. It doesn’t issue permits, write regulations, cite companies or levy fines. What the CSB does do is look at accidents from a broader perspective of what really went wrong — what systems are in place that failed to prevent disasters like this? What new systems are needed? Which agencies weren’t doing their jobs? How can they do better?

UPDATED, APRIL 30, 2013 — The CSB has issued a statement and launched a Facebook page about its investigation of the West, Texas, disaster. Among other things, the agency statement says:

This new Facebook page is intended to be a place where we can keep you informed of the status of our investigation, and where individuals may feel free to contribute information or views about any issue related to this terrible tragedy … The CSB will be examining many issues surrounding the explosion, including (but not limited to) the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate, facility siting in proximity to residential units, a nursing home and school, emergency responder safety. The siting of potentially hazardous facilities near residential areas is not new to the CSB: we investigated in 2006 an ink plant that blew up one night in Danvers, Massachusetts, damaging dozens of nearby homes in the blast wave path. And we have examined the issue of responder safety many times following chemical accidents.

The tragedy at West is all the more heartbreaking because so many firefighters lost their lives as they voluntarily responded to a fire at a facility that stored and distributed very hazardous chemicals, and so many residents lost their homes. But every day, members of the public, workers and first responders are impacted by fires, explosions and toxic releases that could be prevented. Our agency believes that every chemical facility must be operated in a safe manner, and that workers, communities and responders all have the right to know about the chemical hazards that might be in their midst.

To that end, I extend to the people of West our commitment to conduct a thorough investigation and to make the results public as soon as possible to that you may know the full story and so that communities across America will know what to do to make similar facilities safer.

Why wouldn’t everyone involved want exactly that sort of investigation of what happened in West, Texas.

Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief Louie Bright III, right, hands Holly Harris an American flag at the funeral for her husband, Dallas Fire-Rescue Captain Kenneth “Luckey” Harris, Jr. on Wednesday April 24, 2013 in West, Texas. Harris was killed in the West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion on April 17. (AP Photo/Dallas Morning News, Ian C. Bates, Pool)