Firefighters conduct search and rescue at the scene of the fertilizer plan explosion in West, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero.)
A torrent of troubling information about the massive explosion in West, Texas has emerged since April 19—it’s becoming increasingly clear that the federal regulatory structure failed on multiple fronts when it came to the West Fertilizer Company plant.
Tuesday afternoon, Senator Barbara Boxer announced the first formal federal investigation into the tragedy. The Senate and Environment and Public Works Committee will hold hearings soon on what happened in West and how it might have been prevented.
No hearing date has been announced, but Boxer has sent letters to the Chemical Safety Board and the Environmental Protection Agency demanding some very specific answers about what each agency did—or failed to do—before the explosion.
Specifically, Boxer wants to know, among other things, why the EPA isn’t concerned with how much ammonium nitrate is stored at chemical plants under its jurisdiction. Here’s her full list of questions, sent to acting EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe:
The plant’s ammonium nitrate stock has been a subject of considerable debate since the explosion. The West Fertilizer did report its ammonium nitrate inventory to state and local authorities, as recently as February. It did not, however, report it to the Department of Homeland Security, as it is required by law to do. (Any operations that have a ton of ammonium nitrate or more must report it to DHS; West Fertilizer Co. had 270 tons.)
The company also did not report its ammonium nitrate stock to the EPA, and what Boxer’s getting at here is that it wasn’t even required to.
Even though the Clean Air Act mandated the EPA to reduce the risk from explosive chemicals, ammonium nitrate isn’t on the list, despite being one of the more common explosive chemicals in commercial operations today. It’s also one of the most dangerous—it’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.