Texas lawmakers were told today that a tangle of confusing and complicated regulations, and sometimes a disturbing lack of regulations, govern the operation of fertilizer plants like the one that exploded in West last month, and many of the regulations which do exist are geared more toward making sure chemicals like ammonium nitrate don't get into the wrong hands, instead of assuring that the chemicals are stored safely.
In fact, Kathryn Perkins, Director of the Division of Regulatory Services for the State Health Department, told a Legislative committee that citizens can't obtain much information about potentially dangerous ammonium nitrate storage facilities near them.
"There are security concerns about having that web site completely open to anybody who might want to look at it," she told the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, which is the first government body to told a public hearing on the explosion, which killed 14 people and caused an estimated $100 million damage to the central Texas community on March 17.
Steve McCraw, the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told lawmakers that there are some 1100 locations statewide which are licensed to store ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in fertilizer which is highly explosive and was the material used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He says there are 41 facilities in Texas which are licensed to store more than 10,000 pounds of the material. Lawmakers said there may have been as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate at the time of the explosion.
W. Nim Kidd, Chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said while 'local fire officials' are largely responsible for making the sure materials like ammonium nitrate are stored safely, he agreed with Perkins that it is not easy for citizens to know when the potentially explosive substance is being stored in their community.
"Putting a lot of this information out in the public domain puts that information straight into the hands of terrorists," He said.
Liberal groups have used the incident to pound Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has stressed limited regulation of business as a centerpiece of his 'Texas Plan' for economic development. Phillip Martin, Political Director of the liberal activist group Progress Texas, said the hearing 'made Texas' lack of regulation of industrial plants and dangerous chemicals abundantly clear.'
"Governor Perry and the Republican-controlled Legislature should heed the warnings from today's hearing and pro-actively pursue proper regulations that can mitigate future disasters like West," he said.
Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, a Democrat from El Paso, repeatedly grilled state officials about who is in ultimate charge of making sure fertilizer plants are safe, at one point expressing astonishment that daily regulation is under the control of an obscure official called the Texas State Chemist.
"Most people didn't know that this office existed," Pickett said.
But State Chemist Tim Hermann said his main responsibility is to 'facilitate commerce' by making sure that fertilizer which is sold is safe for use and includes the listed ingredients, and he said any inspections of plants like the one in West are mainly to make sure that the products stored there are 'safe from vandalism and theft' and he said the people who do inspections are not chemists.
Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzmann testified that there is no state requirement that fertilizer plants be insured, and said that while the West plant did in fact have coverage, there was 'absolutely no relationship with the kind of risk' the plant presented. She said the level of safety inspection would be up to individual insurance adjusters.
"It is up to the insurance companies to determine risk management," she said.
Pickett repeatedly asked witnesses if more state regulations covering fertilizer plants would be needed.
Meanwhile, Assistant Texas Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said 80 investigators are on the scene of the blast, conducting a probe which he compared to an 'archaeological excavation.' He said investigators from 27 state and federal agencies are digging through 14.9 acres. He said the investigation is expected to be completed 'by May 10th.'
But Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said the exact cause of the explosion may never be pinpointed.
"The cause may be listed as undermined," he said. "That would happen if we find two or more potential causes."