Two and a half years ago, Central Texas changed forever. The West Fertilizer Co. building exploded on April 17, 2013, killing 15 people, injuring more than 160 and destroying dozens of buildings in the vicinity.
In the aftermath of the case, seven civil lawsuits were filed for damages in the deaths and injuries of these citizens. The first of these settled out of court on Oct. 11, but two rounds of cases are still pending for 2016.
While civil cases are a tool for families to receive a financial compensation for their loved ones, the state of Texas and federal government missed an opportunity to get justice for these first-responders after irresponsible action by the plant’s owners caused unthinkable consequences.
An initial investigation attributed the explosion to the plant’s store of ammonium nitrate, which is one of the key ingredients in fertilizer.
Multiple regulatory bodies have gotten involved with the West plant over the years, and most for ammonium. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had not done a survey of the plant since 1985, but cited the plant for serious violations of storage of anhydrous ammonia at the time.
In addition to OSHA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined the plant nearly $10,000 combined for failing to responsibly store the ammonia.
“The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable,” chairman of the Chemical Safety Board Rafael Moure-Eraso said at the time. “It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”
The West Fertilizer Co. was told of the risks and chose to simply pay moderate fines. Through their inaction, the company put hundreds of lives at risk. Fifteen people lost their lives, but the explosion also took out an apartment building, West Rest Haven nursing home and West Middle School. All were in the line of fire.
Unfortunately, Texas and the federal government have been eerily quiet when it comes to how they plan on preventing another West explosion. This is a time to act.
There is very little purpose to having regulatory bodies if they do not have any ability to interfere with wrongdoing that puts innocent people in harm’s way. Texas needs to ensure it prioritizes the safety of the public when making decisions like these.
The Texas Legislature has not been completely lax when it comes to this issue. On June 16, HB 942 became law, which increased regulations on storage of hazardous chemicals. There were a couple of other bills pertaining to the issue that were proposed in the legislature.
But the fact remains, Texas is still susceptible to a similar incident any time an old fertilizer plant catches on fire. If the death of this many individuals and extreme loss of property is not enough to cause action, it’s hard to say anything will.