Posted: Apr 22, 2014 11:31 AM
Updated: Apr 22, 2014 11:32 AM
DALLAS (AP) The fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people last year in a tiny Texas town could have been prevented, even if it's still not clear what started an initial fire that triggered the blast, federal officials said Tuesday.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board announced its findings after a year of investigating the blast in West, Texas, that also injured 200 and decimated parts of the town.
The safety board said the owners of West Fertilizer Co. failed to safely store hazardous chemicals or prepare for a potential disaster. The board also said several levels of federal, state and local government missed opportunities to prevent the tragedy.
"It should never have occurred," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, the chairman of the safety board, which does not have any regulatory authority.
Despite investigations that have yielded information about safety deficiencies at the plant and voluntary safety steps taken by the nation's fertilizer industry, not a single state or federal law requiring change has been passed since April 17, 2013.
As many as 34 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated inside West Fertilizer Co. It's a chemical commonly used in fertilizer and as an industrial explosive, but it is dangerous under certain conditions or in the wrong hands.
The plant in West had 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in wooden containers inside a wooden building with no sprinkler system, investigators said Tuesday. There was more ammonium nitrate in a rail car outside the building.
A separate, ongoing investigation by federal and state officials has narrowed the possible causes of the fire to three things: a golf cart battery, an electrical system or a criminal act. No one has been charged in connection with the blast.
Daniel Horowitz, the chemical safety board's managing director, told The Associated Press on Monday that even if some questions remain unanswered, "we know more than enough to keep this from happening again."
Moure-Eraso said federal, state and local agencies could all do more. He said he believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enough authority already to require companies to follow stricter safety guidelines.
In Texas, companies can still store hazardous chemicals in flammable wooden containers in buildings without sprinklers, and volunteer firefighters like the dozen who rushed into the West plant still aren't required to train how to fight such fires.
Moure-Eraso suggested that Texas could pass a state fire code or change state law to allow small counties to enact their own, and said officials in McLennan County, where West is located, could have done more to prepare an emergency response plan for the plant.
But he laid the ultimate responsibility for preventing the disaster on West Fertilizer Co.
"What the regulators do is basically monitor what is happening, but the primary responsibility has to be for whoever is putting this chemical in commerce," Moure-Eraso said. "The regulators themselves are not the ones that caused this thing."
A spokesman for the owners of the plant did not immediately respond to a message. The plant's owners have denied the allegations of dozens of residents and companies suing them in civil court, saying the plant was negligent in how it handled and stored ammonium nitrate.
The safety board will hold a meeting Tuesday night in West to discuss its findings and recommendations with residents and town officials.
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