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Posted: Jan 7, 2014 11:01 AM

Updated: Jan 7, 2014 11:01 AM

Houston Chronicle. Jan. 3, 2014.

Willful neglect? Proactive action needed to close the holes in safety net that West plant explosion exposed

In the small Central Texas town of West, the healing continues nearly nine months after the April fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 15 people, injured an estimated 300 and cost more than $100 million in property damage, as well as millions more for response and investigation.

As the people of West rebuild their lives and their community, the trauma they experienced can be instructive for cities and towns across Texas and the rest of the nation, as well as for various levels of government with responsibility for preventing similar tragedies.

An eight-month-long investigation by The Dallas Morning News has concluded that what happened in West was the result of "a cascade of predicted and preventable failures," including neglect, budgetary erosion and complacency. It also concluded that, for many of the same reasons, holes in the safety net remain.

The News found that much of the legal authority for reforming how we protect communities from chemical accidents is on the books, but governments chronically fail to use that authority. The West experience is a gruesome reminder that business and taxpayers have to decide to invest strategically in emergency planning and prevention to prevent future disasters.

The News also pointed out that prevention too often seems to be no one's concern. West Fertilizer had not followed widely available guidelines for safely storing ammonium nitrate fertilizer, but no one knew or cared. A fire code inspection might have uncovered the neglect, but neither West nor McLennan County had adopted a code.

In most Texas counties, the Legislature forbids county fire codes. The presence of toxic risks in many of the counties without codes is reason enough for lawmakers to address these concerns in its 2015 session.

The News also found that neither state nor federal officials were any more alert to potential danger than local officials. They failed to exercise the power they had to prevent what happened at West.

"No solution will work without concrete changes in current practices by businesses and federal, state and local govenments," The News noted. "And continuing the pattern of inattention that led to West virtually guarantees that it will happen again - in another small town or an urban industrial neighborhood."

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Austin American-Statesman. Jan. 2, 2014.

State fire marshal's efforts commendable

Chris Connealy, the former Cedar Park fire chief who serves as the state fire marshal, is doing what he can to try to prevent another deadly disaster like the one experienced last spring in West. We appreciate and support Connealy's efforts, which contrast sharply with the do-nothing attitudes of other state officials who have rejected even modest suggestions to close the gaps in the regulation of ammonium nitrate and other potentially hazardous chemicals.

Connealy began a 68-stop tour of Texas in December to meet with local firefighters, business owners and others responsible for safely storing and protecting the public from ammonium nitrate. An April 17 fire at the West Fertilizer Co. caused the ammonium nitrate stored there to explode, killing 15 people, injuring 200 others and causing more than $100 million in property damage.

Because Texas doesn't have a state fire code, the state fire marshal's office is limited in what it can do to assess and ensure the safety of facilities that store and handle potentially dangerous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer ingredient. With little authority to force facility owners to better protect the ammonium nitrate they store against fire, Connealy is relying on the power of persuasion instead.

"I want to focus on reaffirming best practices. I always say it's hard to get in trouble following best practices," Connealy recently told a group gathered in Clifton, a town about 35 miles from West, according to an Associated Press report published this week.

And to try to better inform the public about what might be stored nearby, Connealy's office launched a website last fall that lets Texans search by ZIP code for facilities that store at least 5 tons of ammonium nitrate. Investigators believe about 30 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in West. Because security is a concern ammonium nitrate was the explosive used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing the website doesn't list names of the storage facilities or show them on a map.

The cause of the fire that caused ammonium nitrate stored at the West fertilizer plant to explode remains under investigation. Whether the fire was accidentally or deliberately set, the fact remains that ammonium nitrate was stored in wooden containers in a building that had no sprinkler system because it wasn't required to have one, by either the town of West or McLennan County, where West is located. There also was no fence around the facility.

A fractured and confusing collection of federal, state and local agencies and rules govern the storage of ammonium nitrate and other dangerous chemicals. The patchwork regulatory system leads to duplication and inefficiency. In West, it contributed to disaster.

At the federal level, President Barack Obama issued an executive order Aug. 1 directing his administration to improve safety at all facilities that store ammonium nitrate. Obama gave a group of administration officials until spring to update federal policies and improve the federal government's coordination with state and local agencies.

Regulation-averse state lawmakers have resisted change on the regulation front, meanwhile. Suggestions to streamline the jumbled rules that do exist and clarify which agencies have the authority to enforce them were seen by some state lawmakers at a committee hearing held last year as a step toward regulatory craziness.

While a state fire code would enable the state fire marshal to inspect companies without first seeking their permission, we recognize that Texas legislators probably would see such a move as a government step too far. There are reasonable alternatives, however. Connealy, for example, has proposed requiring facilities to undergo a fire inspection before the state grants them a license to store ammonium nitrate.

The Legislature reconvenes next January. We will see then whether any effort is made to enforce "best practices" on chemical storage facilities.

"The sole mission is to prevent another West," Connealy said in Clifton, doing what he could to preach the gospel of fire safety. To succeed, the sole mission Connealy talks about shouldn't also be a solo mission.

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The Dallas Morning News. Jan. 2, 2014.

Voter ID study confirms what we already feared

As we move into the political season the 2014 primaries and midterm elections a new study shows that tougher voter ID laws continue to crop up in GOP-led states where minority and lower-income voter turnout has increased.

That's an uncomfortable truth with potentially uncomfortable consequences that should rattle anyone who cares about voting participation and fairness. And it confirms a concern this newspaper has had with tougher voter ID laws, including Texas' controversial photo ID law, which state lawmakers adopted in 2011 on purely partisan grounds.

The new research asserts that the tougher laws are part of a GOP strategy aimed at keeping minority and low-income voters away from the polls, despite the fact that widespread voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent.

Research from University of Massachusetts at Boston sociologist Keith Bentele and political scientist Erin O'Brien shows a correlation between restrictive new voting laws and states where Republicans control the legislature or governor's office.

In fact, the ties are so compelling that the researchers conclude that photo identification, proof of citizenship, tighter voter registration drives, shorter early voting periods, repeal of same-day voter registration and other new voter ID laws "collectively reduce electoral access among the socially marginalized."

Restricting access to the ballot box is a dangerously slippery legal slope, which is why these measures have generated several lawsuits against Texas and other states.

While not perfect, the old system in Texas was built on the proper premise that voter laws should encourage voter turnout not discourage entire segments of would-be voters. Until the passage of the new voter photo ID law, Texans could show, among other documents, a utility bill as proof of identity allowing them to cast a ballot.

With the 2014 election cycle upon us a season expected to be highly partisan and divisive we're likely to hear examples of voters being turned away or having to scale a higher bar.

We got a taste of it in November when former House Speaker Jim Wright briefly was denied a voter ID card at a Texas Department of Public Safety office because his Texas driver's license had expired and his TCU faculty ID didn't meet the requirements of the law. Eventually, he got a state-issued personal identification card and voted. Still, it was an unnecessary hurdle that this newspaper is concerned others of lesser means cannot or will not scale.

The good news from last November's election is that few ID problems developed. This year when more seats are up statewide and the stakes are higher will be much more of a test.

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San Antonio Express-News. Jan. 3, 2013.

It's not an either/or situation in water, energy debate

A new study says generating energy from natural gas uses much less water than other methods. This certainly makes the case for using more of this particular resource in energy generation.

It doesn't, however, make the case that fracking the process that has freed so much gas should continue to consume as much of the state's water as it does. And in no case should fracking ever be allowed to contaminate water sources.

In December, the Express-News reported that water usage for hydraulic fracturing in the Eagle Ford Shale has exceeded what an industry-funded study by the University of Texas at Austin said would be peak usage.

That study said water usage would peak at 35,000 acre-feet a year. But an analysis by Hiller revealed Eagle Ford wells using nearly 44,000 acre feet a year enough water for 153,000 San Antonians in a year.

Also in December, the Houston Chronicle reported on another study by the University of Texas at Austin. It said water savings from natural gas is 20 to 50 times greater than the water used in fracking.

Great. But the drought has taken its toll on Texas water supplies and will continue to do so. Moreover, the state's population is expected to go from today's 26 million to 45.3 million by 2040.

Every drop counts and will count even more in the future.

So, by all means, utilities should convert to the relatively more abundant natural gas better yet, renewable energy sources. Texas is a national leader at the moment in greenhouse gas emissions, though not solely because of energy generation.

Roughly 27 percent of CPS Energy's electricity generation capacity comes from coal; about 45 percent from natural gas. Statewide, about 45 percent of electricity comes from natural gas; 35 percent from coal.

The water savings from natural gas, however, don't mean that fracking operations shouldn't start recycling the water it uses, also putting effluent and brackish water to use. Most don't because it isn't cost-effective. Running out of water in those high-fracking areas isn't either.

The Texas Railroad Commission, despite this newer UT study, should pursue regulations that encourage, even mandate, water recycling in fracking while utilities should explore more electricity generated from natural gas, wind and solar.

Texas must strike a balance between the needs of an industry that provides so much bounty in jobs and revenue and the resources it takes to tap this wealth. But water conservation in fracking and electricity generation strikes just this balance and will best serve the state in the long run.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jan. 4, 2013.

Texas Railroad Commission can't just tippy-toe around quakes

Last week's town hall meeting held by Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter in Azle couldn't have satisfied anyone who wanted answers about links between natural gas drilling and waste disposal wells and a swarm of minor earthquakes in North Texas.

To be fair to Porter and the handful of Railroad Commission staff members at the meeting, they made it clear that they were there to listen and didn't have any definitive answers to offer.

But to be fair to the rest of the people in the auditorium, it's past time for the commission to get those answers. There have been about 30 small quakes in the Azle area in the past two months.

Porter issued a news release following up on the meeting. He said he sees his role as "protecting the health and safety of Texans, while promoting the energy production that is vital for our state and for the nation."

So in his mind he's not a regulator of the oil and gas industry. He's a regulator/promoter. That must be difficult, constantly requiring one to straddle a barbed-wire fence.

"I look forward to sharing the comments and concerns I received with my fellow Commissioners as we continue to study any possible causation between oil and gas activities and seismic events," Porter said in the release. "The Commission must base its rules and regulations on sound science and proven facts, not speculation and theories ."

Is the three-member commission doing anything to separate facts from speculation and theories?

"In addition to taking the residents' comments into serious consideration, Commissioner Porter has been in communication with the state geologist in regards to a potential study by the Bureau of Economic Geology," Porter's news release said. "Railroad Commission staff is also participating in a work group formed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes representatives from the United States Geological Survey and other state regulatory agencies."

There's "serious consideration," a "potential study" and a "work group." Sounds like tippy-toeing.

In fact, there is a considerable amount of science linking disposal wells, which push millions of gallons of drilling waste into rock formations deep underground, with "induced" earthquakes.

A report posted in July described one study by USGS scientists. The results were also published in the journal Science.

The rate of quakes increased to about 100 a year in the central and eastern U.S. in the three-year period from 2010 through 2012, up from an average 21 a year from 1967-2000, the study showed. The increase coincided with a rapid increase in oil and gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing, which leaves large amounts of waste water for disposal.

It's not like every disposal well triggers earthquakes. In fact, the USGS study said "very few" do.

And the hydraulic fracturing process itself "only very rarely" causes quakes.

A study by Southern Methodist University and UT-Austin researchers listed a disposal well at DFW Airport as the "plausible cause" of earthquakes there in 2008 and 2009. Other studies have looked at such links, as well.

Additional monitors have been deployed in the Azle area so researchers can study seismic activity there.

If the Railroad Commission members want more information, by all means they should get it.

A link with earthquakes does not mean all disposal wells must be shut down. The USGS study says the risk can be managed.

But the regulatory framework for the Texas oil and gas industry is too important for tippy-toeing.

The Railroad Commission must vigorously pursue the earthquake problem and provide answers.

Topics: Texas Editorial Roundup

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