Thousands gathered for a memorial service at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., to honor those killed in the April 17 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. “While the eyes of the world may have been fixed on places far away, our hearts have also been here in your time of tribulation,” President Barack Obama told the audience. “And even amidst such sorrow and so much pain, we recognize God’s abundance. We give thanks for the courage and the compassion and the incredible grace of the people of West.”
He honored the first responders and residents who rushed to the scene when the fire alarm sounded, noting, “As we’ve heard, the call went out to volunteers – not professionals – people who just love to serve. People who want to help their neighbors. A call went out to farmers and car salesmen; and welders and funeral home directors; the city secretary and the mayor. It went out to folks who are tough enough and selfless enough to put in a full day’s work and then be ready for more.”
The president acknowledged the loss experienced by the entire, close-knit community by saying, “Most of the people in West know everybody in West. Many of you are probably descended from those first settlers – hardy immigrants who crossed an ocean and kept on going. When someone is in need, you reach out to them and you support them, and you do what it takes to help them carry on.”
The first residents of West, with its current population of 2,800, arrived in the 1840s, followed by Czech immigrants in the 1880s. Until April 17, the town was best known for its Czech food and bakeries – specifically its kolaches – loved by many Texas residents traveling between Austin and Dallas.
“To the people of West, just as we’ve seen the love you share in better times, as friends and brothers and sisters, these hard days have shown your ability to stand tall in times of unimaginable adversity,” Obama told the audience. “And in the days ahead, this love and support will be more important than ever, because there will be moments of doubt and pain and the temptation to wonder how this community will ever fully recover… You have been tested. You have been tried. You have gone through fire. But you are and always will be surrounded by an abundance of love.”
Are Reforms Needed?
West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan update in 2011 with EPA, listing anhydrous ammonia on site, but did not indicate there was a risk of fire or explosion at the plant. And no one can explain the enormous quantity of ammonium nitrate (the substance used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995) that was on site but unreported to the Department of Homeland Security.
“You’d like to think something like this could never happen, that there’d be tight oversight by some agency, but that’s not how it looks,” said Peg Seminario, director of Safety and Health for the AFL-CIO. “In reality, the regulation and oversight systems are often fragmented, so a small but potentially hazardous facility like this one in Texas can get what appears to be little scrutiny. There’s a lot we don’t know yet about what happened, but we do know there are gaps in the regulation and oversight systems. The president should provide leadership in coordinating the investigation and response from federal and state agencies.”
Local firemen and volunteers who rushed toward the facility represented the majority of the deaths from the incident, indicating that first responders may have been unprepared for the dangers of explosion. However, the company was supposed to have a risk management plan developed and shared with local first responders. The law requiring such a plan – the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 – was passed in response to earlier tragedies.
Almost 10,000 facilities across the United States are storing or handling anhydrous ammonia, according to the Center for Effective Government’s RTK NET. There currently is no way to determine whether these facilities have up-to-date risk management plans, and whether these plans have been shared with plant employees, residents of the surrounding community and local emergency personnel. EPA does not require facilities to include ammonium nitrate in their risk management plans.
“As we mourn the human losses West has had to endure and grieve for the courageous people who rushed in to help, let’s commit ourselves to creating a system that prevents other communities from having to experience similar events,” said Katherine McFate, president and CEO of the Center for Effective Government and a co-chair of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards (CSS), an alliance of groups working to protect and strengthen public protections. “That would be a most fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in West, Texas, and other industrial accidents across the country.”
John Mendeloff, director of the RAND Center for Health and Safety in the Workplace, has consulted extensively for OSHA, and has expertise in regulation at OSHA, toxic substances regulation and the impacts of OSHA inspections. Among his thoughts about the West, Tex., incident:
- The incident shows the need for better training of first responders, specifically for those potentially involved with the estimated 6,000 U.S. facilities similar to the one in West; most of which are located in rural areas and small towns.
- The incident highlights the difficulty of OSHA reaching small hazardous facilities with its limited number of inspectors. Other countries have two to three times as many inspectors per facility.
- The incident suggests the value of information exchange among public agencies. Although OSHA had not inspected the facility since 1985, both EPA and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration had found serious deficiencies at the plant in the last 7 years.