Thursday, April 18, 2013

West, Texas Explosion: The Price of Poor Regulation and Rick Perry's Budget Cuts?

Even though the first responders are even now searching through the devastation left after the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion yesterday, some factors that led to the disaster are beginning to become clear.

The plant had already been investigated by The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for its failure to obtain an air quality permit as a fertilizer mixing and storage facility. The company had, in fact, earlier been fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards. That $2,300 penalty was issued on August 14, 2006, according to EPA records.
In November, West Fertilizer Co. vowed to meet all standards expected for anhydrous ammonia storage tanks. The odorless gas would be stored in two 12,000 gallon permanent storage tanks.

In addition the company would conduct daily in-house inspections during normal business hours to ensure there are no" leaks of ammonia.
Despite previous complaints from neighbors of ammonia smells from the plant, West Fertilizer Company officials assured the TCEQ that “emissions from the tanks would not pose a danger.” However:
That assertion was based on expected routine emissions, not the possibility of a catastrophic failure.

As a permit condition, the TCEQ required the company to build a wall between the tanks and a public road to prevent passing vehicles from striking the tanks. The company complied and on Dec. 12, 2006, the agency’s executive director issued an operating permit for the tanks, which already existed.

According to the DallasNews, state inspectors at that time were aware of the proximity of homes, a senior citizens home, and schools during that review. 
The regional investigator described the area surrounding the facility as residential and farm land. There are two schools located within 3000 ft of this facility, however, the impact potential is described by the region [regional TCEQ office] as low. The nearest off property receptor, a residence, is 350 ft from the plant.
The TCEQ itself has been criticized as little more than “a rubber-stamp wonderland when it comes to giving waivers to polluting companies, to the degree that the feds have had to step in to make sure someone actually does the job.”

Back in 2009, Chris Vogel for the Houston Press, wrote a scathing article about lax enforcement by TCEQ when it came to toxic gases from plants along the Houston Ship Channel. In the report, Vogel noted:
  • TCEQ rarely took ­enforcement action, and when the agency did, the fines were nominal and in most cases later significantly reduced;
  • The plants with the most violations paid the lowest percentage of their fines;
  • TCEQ is so understaffed that it can take years to finalize penalties, and some critics say it avoids assessing time-consuming violations altogether.
  • And, as a matter of policy, TCEQ strayed from federal law by combining multiple federal permit violations into a single state violation, thereby giving industry a break by assessing fewer and less costly penalties.

Despite this criticism, two years later, the governor’s budget reduced funding for the agency by about $295 million, or 34 percent, and was expected to lose 295 full-time employees.

* * *
This would not be the first time that Rick Perry’s cuts have been pointed to as a factor in worsening a disaster. In the drought-blighted summer of 2011, devastating wildfires in Texas ravaged more than 10,000 acres (40 km2) and/or caused significant destruction in residential areas.

The governor’s budget, critics said, had a direct impact on the state’s ability to respond. As Alternet reports: 
Texas volunteer fire departments were hosed with a Perry-approved budget that cut state funding from $30 million to $7 million. To make matters worse, most of Texas is protected by volunteer firefighters -- a good 879 volunteer departments cover much of the state of Texas, as compared to the 114 paid departments and 187 departments that are a combination of both.
In 2011, while running for president, Governor Rick Perry boasted about limited the effectiveness of government.
"I promise you one other thing, I'll get up every day to make government as inconsequential in your life as I can make it."
Today perhaps the governor woke up to the reality of what happens when government becomes too inconsequential to oversee the safety of the residents of little towns like West, Texas.