Lax security in the agri-chemical industry heinous

— The Dallas Morning News

At last, there’s definitive action from the bureaucratic world toward cutting through the jumble of regulations that led to the West, Texas, fertilizer disaster.

The fact that concrete steps are being ordered out of Washington and not Austin is hardly a surprise, considering how Gov. Rick Perry has been content to sit on his hands.

President Barack Obama’s recent executive order seeking better safety, security and data-sharing practices for hazardous chemicals came with deadlines, reflecting the sense of urgency that’s needed at every level of government.

And there was more good news out of Washington: The White House’s reversal on a major-disaster declaration to help West rebuild from the devastating April 17 explosion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s earlier rejection of the disaster application was a slap in the face to the stricken town, especially after Obama’s personal visit and warm assurances.

Cost estimates for new pipes, roads and schools have exceeded $100 million, and the community, with a population of 2,800 at the time of the blast, doesn’t have that kind of cash. FEMA’s declaration means the federal government will share the cost with state and local agencies.

The more complicated business is making sure another West-like disaster doesn’t happen, in Texas or anywhere else in the nation. Highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer is stockpiled in hundreds of warehouses and depots, and the regulatory landscape — especially in Texas — invites fatal confusion over who knows what and who’s responsible.

That confusion cost 15 people their lives in West, including 12 first responders. The volunteer firefighters did not have a plan for a fire at the West Fertilizer Co., nor did they know of the explosive potential inside. The plant had minimal security and no sprinkler system to douse a fire that could trigger a blast. Some state and local agencies knew ammonium nitrate was stored there, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not.

The blind spots meant neighbors were living next to a time bomb in West. With only patchwork regulations in place, countless people — especially in the heart of farm communities — live with the same threat.

Agencies must share information more effectively. The West blast is evidence that self-policing in the agri-chemical industry puts innocent, unsuspecting neighbors at risk. Lax security is intolerable.

It’s good to see the federal government taking the initiative to institute a sane approach to safety, and state and local officials need to show every ounce of cooperation they can muster.

Perry got off on the wrong foot, with his office saying it’s premature to be working on a new regulatory framework, since the cause of the blast remains undetermined. But the cause may never be determined.

Starting the serious work to improve security is not premature. If anything, it’s overdue.


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