Safety and OSHA News

Will turf war compromise safety investigation into Texas explosion?

A federal safety official has raised a warning flag about the investigation into the fatal explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant in April. The problem: Evidence needed to find out what caused the explosion is being destroyed, possibly because of work being done by another federal agency.

You’d think that when an explosion kills 14 people, injures 200 and levels hundreds of structures, federal and state agencies would know how to “play nice” together so all of their jobs could get done.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Officials from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) complain that they’ve been blocked from doing their job at the blast site by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office. The ATF and Fire Marshal are leading the criminal investigation into the explosion.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso has become so frustrated by the situation that he sent a letter to Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asking her to intervene so the CSB can “provide clear, actionable recommendations to prevent the repetition of this tragedy.”

The safety agency says the ATF and Fire Marshal have:

  • restricted CSB investigators’ movements
  • blocked CSB interviews with witnesses, and
  • bulldozed, altered or removed evidence they need to determine all the factors that led to the explosion.

Among the questions at stake:

  • whether existing standards for handling and storing ammonium nitrate are adequate (other countries’ regulations on the substance are more strict than those in the U.S.)
  • the role played by Texas’ lack of a statewide fire code (the West plant wasn’t required to follow either of two nationally recommended fire codes), and
  • how prepared emergency responders were for this chemical disaster.

The ATF and Fire Marshal have already announced their preliminary findings. The cause of the explosion remains undetermined, but the possibilities have been narrowed to a spark from a golf cart, faulty electrical wiring or arson.

However, in his letter to Sen. Feinstein, Moure-Eraso wrote, “All indications are that the event was an industrial accident” rather than arson.

This isn’t the first time the CSB and the ATF have butted heads over an investigation. The CSB has often been temporarily blocked from disaster sites, despite a 2001 memorandum of understanding with the ATF.

The CSB calls the West, Texas, blast the most damaging incident it has investigated in the 15 years since the agency was launched. CSB’s investigation results aren’t expected for another 12 to 18 months.

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