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West explosion takes center stage at state Capitol

The investigation is starting to wrap up into the fertilizer plant explosion that rocked the small town of West last month. A search for answers in the town north of Waco isn't the only thing going on. A special legislative hearing also took place Wednesday, in Austin.

On the south lawn of the state Capitol stands a monument dedicated to the memory of fallen volunteer fire fighters. Inside the Capitol Wednesday morning, the latest victims of disaster were remembered.

"If you will bear with me also for a moment if we could have a moment of silence for all those who lost their lives in West," said State Representative Joe Pickett as he opened a hearing of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Rep. Pickett, who is the Committee chairman, wants to know if the fertilizer plant explosion in West could have or should have been prevented.

"Everything from here on out, changes. Period," said the Democrat from El Paso.

While the impact of the explosion is hard to miss, what's unclear is who in Texas has regulatory oversight of the fertilizer industry. During the hearing the heads of several different state agencies testified that they are not safety cops but are more like paper pushers.

"What are you able to do? We are able to on a request to go in and do an inspection but against limited to, did you fill out the paperwork," explained Dr. David Lakey with the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Throughout the morning, agency officials described how they either collect data, make sure pollution prevention measures are in place or if there's security to stop theft. Responsibility to spot an impending disaster like what happened in West apparently falls to local authorities like a Fire Chief.

"For the safety aspect I think we'll take a look at that after the investigation is over," said Rep. Pickett.

An 80 person team is now working the center of the blast zone in West. The investigation is expected to wrap up by May 10.

Of the 14 people killed in the blast, 11 were fire fighters and emergency responders. The pressure to do something increased when committee members were told there are more than a thousand facilities in Texas that store ammonium nitrate. There are also a least 41 fertilizer plants similar to the one that blew up in West.

The gap in protection is not limited to state agencies. A recent investigation revealed serious problems with a Federal team created to monitor and track companies that deal with volatile substances. In March the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a critical review of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. According to the report;

"It has been more than 5 years since the program was created, almost $443 million has been appropriated, and no facility has gone through the entire CFATS regulatory process."

Reportedly plant managers in West had not reported into the federal program, but according to testimony during the committee hearing in Austin, they did inform state officials last year the facility had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate. Conflicting reports like that, is why lawmakers were urged Wednesday to tread lightly.

"To sit here and speculate why it happened what caused it did somebody do something right or something wrong, too much oversight not enough oversight, I really believe we should wait until the investigation is complete," said Texas EMA Director Nim Kidd.

Chairman Pickett agrees that the process under the Capitol dome should not move too fast.

"I don't want a knee jerk reaction saying we need more regulation and more laws. Do we need more attention more participation do we need more communication between the different agencies, that never hurts," said Rep Pickett.

Link to DHS IG Report:


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