Greater DHS Oversight of Fertilizer Eyed After West, Texas, Explosion

WASHINGTON – Congressional leaders and the White House set their sights on the oversight system that some blame for the deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

President Obama ordered Thursday the drafting of tighter rules for the handling and storage of ammonium nitrate – the chemical responsible for the explosion at West Fertilizer Co. that claimed the lives of at least 14 people and injured more than 300 others in April.

The executive order, which is designed to reduce the risks of working with hazardous materials, requires agencies to take several steps to improve safety at plants that store dangerous chemicals. On Friday, the president finally declared West a disaster area.

The directive creates a new Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group composed of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other federal agencies.

The president instructed federal agencies to develop a plan within 90 days to identify measures to improve plant safety.

The announcement came as the administration faces increasing pressure from members of Congress and safety advocates to improve federal oversight of chemical facilities, refineries, and fertilizer plants.

At an unrelated House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on the same day of the president’s announcement, lawmakers pressed David Wulf, DHS’s national protection and programs director, for answers on why that agency has not fully implemented ammonium tracking.

Wulf said the executive order would "complement many individual efforts" among agencies to step up facility security and would "modernize" the work. But the lack of collective oversight by – and sharing of information between – local, state and federal agencies was also a repeated source of questioning Thursday.

“My sense is the coordinating has been occurring in the field,” Wulf said.

He said nationally, though, there is no consolidated database of chemical facilities.

“That is something we’re going to look at doing,” he said.

Congressmen said at the hearing the fertilizer plant explosion sent a shockwave of fear across the nation.

“Americans have been forced to ask themselves very tough questions: ‘Can a West-type explosion happen here in my community?’” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

Facilities that store more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate, like West Fertilizer, are supposed to report such storage to the federal government. West Fertilizer, however, never told DHS about its ammonium nitrate, though local and state agencies were aware of it.

According to a filing with the EPA in late 2012, the plant was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate at the time of the explosion. The facility also stored 55 tons of anhydrous ammonia, another chemical commonly used as fertilizer.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said the West incident demonstrates the harm to individual communities from a chemical disaster. He added that the cost of the physical damage alone is estimated to be nearly $100 million.