In response to the deadly explosion of the West Fertilizer Co., two Texas lawmakers have launched inquiries into the state’s oversight of hazardous materials in an attempt to prevent future catastrophes.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on Friday sent a lengthy query to the chief of Texas’ leading environmental agency, asking how the state could improve its oversight of chemical plants and suggesting the creation of new “buffer zones” to protect neighboring areas.
Ellis’s letter to Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, came as the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety scheduled testimony on the same issues.
“I would hate for the causes of the explosion to be buried along with the people who lost their lives,” said Ellis, who said he waited to send the inquiry until after this week’s memorial services so the victims could be “properly honored.”
Ellis said he wants to ascertain whether a “lack of coordination” among regulatory agencies may have allowed an unsafe facility to operate.
“I just don’t know” if better regulation would have helped, he said. Ellis said he directed his staff to research the issues and compile “an exhaustive list of things that should be asked.”
Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, invited representatives of eight state agencies with some oversight of the plant or the explosion to testify before his committee Wednesday. The agencies are the Department of Public Safety, Texas Division of Emergency Management, Emergency Management Council, Office of the Texas State Chemist, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Department of Agriculture, Department of State Health Services and the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
According to the notice, the committee hopes to obtain information from agencies that “may have jurisdiction or oversight in the regulation, operation, security, licensing, inspection, reporting, location and any other relevant information relating to the operation of facilities such as the fertilizer plant involved in the West, Texas, disaster as it relates to public safety.”
“This isn’t a finger-pointing exercise,” Pickett said. “There are so many questions that members have, that the public has. I’m hoping to get an understanding of how many of these facilities there are. Do we need to inventory them? Are there some more dangerous than others?”
Pickett predicted his inquiry would continue after the Legislature adjourns May 27. “I’m hoping we can shed more light on this during the interim,” he added.
Fees, buffer zones
In his letter to Shaw, Ellis asked whether the commissioner would support assessing new fees on Texas industries to pay for increased inspections. Ellis noted that the Legislature has cut the TCEQ’s budget from $554 million in 2008 to $340 million this year.
He also asked Shaw whether new fees may be considered to “cover the expenses of creating set-backs (i.e. buffer zones) between chemical plants and residences or schools.”
Ellis, noting that facilities that store potentially hazardous chemicals must file “risk management plans” with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, asked whether the TCEQ sees those plans. “If the TCEQ does not review them, would you recommend that the TCEQ be brought in that loop and would action by the legislature be needed to make that happen?” Ellis wrote.
He also asked whether the state’s environmental codes allow the TCEQ to consider “plant safety considerations” such as “proximity to residences or schools, or storage of explosive or acutely toxic materials.” If no law expressly gives the authority, Ellis continued, “does the Commission on its own, through discretion, policy, or rule-making, have the ability to include plant safety considerations are part of its enforcement and inspection actions?”
A TCEQ spokesman said the agency was “reviewing Senator Ellis’s letter and will prepare a timely response. Any new state, federal or local regulation must be based on determination of the cause of this tragic accident and that cause has not yet to be determined.”