Will CSB be able to investigate West, Texas, disaster?

May 23, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

ATF Special Agent in Charge Robert Champion delivers his remarks about the findings of a joint investigation of the West Fertilizer Plant fire and explosion during a press conference in the parking lot of West High School in West, Texas, Thursday, May 16, 2013. Investigators narrowed the number of possible causes to three: a problem with one of the plant’s electrical systems, a battery-powered golf cart, and a criminal act. They ruled out a wide number of others, from a rail car on site loaded with fertilizer to someone smoking. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Tom Fox)

We reported first here nearly a month ago now about how the U.S. Chemical Safety Board appeared to have been benched in its efforts to investigate the terrible fire at that fertilizer facility in West, Texas.

There appears to have been a little bit of movement toward the CSB being able to do its job (see here and here). And publicly, CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso has been trying to play nice, saying recent:

“On behalf of our investigation team and the board, I would like to thank the mayor, fire and police officials, community members and West Fertilizer employees for their outstanding cooperation with the CSB during an extraordinarily difficult period.  Our hearts go out to the residents, employees, and emergency responders and we want everyone to know we are fully committed to providing a thorough public account of all the factors that led to this catastrophe. After a disaster of this scale, it is essential to pursue improved safety as we look toward the future.

In a press release, the CSB even outlined some details of what it plans to investigate:

CSB Western Regional Office Director Don Holmstrom said, “The CSB will be examining many issues surrounding the explosion such as the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate, the siting of vulnerable public facilities and residential units near the facility, and emergency responder safety. In addition, the investigation will examine the adequacy of national standards, industry practices, and regulations for the safe storage and handling of ammonium nitrate.”  
CSB investigation areas of inquiry will include ammonium nitrate safe handling and storage standards here and in other countries such as the UK and Australia; land use planning and zoning practices for high-hazard facilities in relation to schools, public facilities, and residential areas; ammonium nitrate detonation mechanisms; the effectiveness of regulatory coverage including OSHA, EPA, and the State of Texas; whether there are inherently safer products or safer ways to store and mitigate the damage should a fire or explosion occur. The investigation will examine the emergency response during the fire at West, and practices, including preparedness, fire codes, and guidelines for good practices found in other jurisdictions.

In this April 25, 2013 file photo, an honor guard stands in front of caskets prior to a memorial service in Waco, Texas for first responders who died in a April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Four weeks later, investigators have yet to announce what prompted the fire and touched off the massive explosion that killed 14 people. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

But then comes this report today, via The Associated Press:

Federal agents and the state fire marshal have effectively barred a federal safety panel from the site of a Texas fertilizer plant blast that killed 15 people and injured about 200 others, hampering its investigation, the panel’s chairman said.

This revelation was first reported, I believe, by the Houston Chronicle and is based on this letter in which the CSB responded to questions from Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office essentially blocked CSB investigators for almost three weeks after the explosion, keeping them from the accident site and from interviewing key witnesses, Rafael Moure-Eraso charged in the letter.

The ATF removed key chemical evidence from the site without consulting CSB, he charged, adding that the explosion site “was massively and irreversibly altered under the direction of ATF personnel, who used cranes, bulldozers and other excavation apparatus in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find a single ignition source for the original fire.”

“In return for limited and unsatisfactory site access, the CSB had to agree to conduct no witness interviews, which form an integral and essential part of the CSB investigative process,” he wrote. “This state of affairs … continued for almost three weeks after the incident _ an unprecedented and harmful delay.”

He added that when the CSB finally interviewed its first witness on May 7, “as soon as the witness left his car near the CSB’s temporary offices in downtown West, he was suddenly surrounded by four armed ATF and SFMO agents and taken away for further ATF interrogation. … only after numerous protests and inquiries did the witness eventually reappear about four hours later.”

The CSB letter also outlines some ways in which the West, Texas, disaster reflects public safety issues faced by many communities around the country. For example:

Following the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984, Congress mandated in 1990 that EPA adopt a regulatory Risk Management Program (RMP) to prevent acute chemical catastrophes that would threaten the public. EPA’s final rule in 1996 imposed safety requirements for certain toxic and flammable substances but did not include reactive or explosive materials like [ammonium nitrate]. In 2002, the CSB recommended that EPA broaden the coverage under the RMP program to include hazardous reactive chemicals, of which AN is an example.


Numerous CSB investigations around the country have highlighted community challenges in preparing for and responding to major chemical incidents. In 1986, Congress established a system to improve preparedness through state and local emergency planning committees, which were required to be set up across the country. However, this system has no federal funding mechanism and often relies on the services of volunteers and local committees that lack much real authority. The CSB will examine the efforts of West Fertilizer and community authorities to exchange information about the site’s hazards.

Interestingly, the EPA was asked to respond to a tough series of questions about West, Texas, and chemical facility safety enforcement. Their response was due to Sen. Boxer by last week — but the last I was told, EPA was still working on its response.

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