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Fertilizer explosion reveals lapses in security, oversight

When stored properly, fertilizer is considered safe. Yet, as the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building showed, it can also be highly combustible when in the wrong hands. That makes reports of insufficient oversight, regulatory gridlock, and incomplete disclosures leading up to the explosion last week at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, all the more disturbing.

Right now the blast — which killed at least 14 people, injured some 200 others, and razed several buildings — appears to have been a horrible industrial accident. Still, the plant, West Fertilizer, had not erected appropriate safeguards, such as blast walls, that could have mitigated the damage. Nor had the facility been fully inspected since 2006 by any of the seven state and federal agencies charged with overseeing it. Regulators relied instead on self-reporting, a practice necessitated by limited budgets but that may put too much faith in the firms handling the hazardous chemicals used to make fertilizer.

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West Fertilizer, for instance, failed to make a required report to the US Department of Homeland Security when it began storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate at its plant last year. That is 1,350 times the amount needed to trigger safety oversight by the federal department, which supervises storage of the hazardous chemical because it can be used to make bombs.

Yet Homeland Security appears not to have known that West Fertilizer existed until the plant blew up. The federal agency should have known, however. The plant’s filings with the Texas Department of State Health Services and other local agencies did include its new chemical inventory — the sudden appearance of which, in such a large quantity, should have immediately raised red flags for local emergency planning authorities. But no one seems to have noticed or shared the information with Homeland Security. The question now is why.

The owners of West Fertilizer should be held accountable for failing to follow federal regulations and not taking other steps to protect the surrounding community. The company’s publicly filed risk assessments inexplicably suggest it never anticipated a fire or detonation at the West plant, yet the explosion last week was strong enough to register 2.1 on the Richter scale and would have caused catastrophic damage in a more populated area.

Regulations don’t work if plants don’t follow them — but also if different agencies don’t talk to one another. There is a complicated flow chart of agencies responsible for collecting and distributing information on ammonium nitrate supplies, but Homeland Security ultimately is charged with monitoring inventories as large as West Fertilizer’s. It should take the lead on oversight. With some 6,000 similar depots in farming communities nationwide and a rapidly expanding fertilizer industry, public safety depends on seamless coordination.

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