A regulatory morass in fertilizer storage
The giant explosion that rocked a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, last Wednesday ought to mandate a hard look by the federal government at rules governing the booming chemicals business. The country’s sudden abundance of cheap natural gas, a primary input in the manufacture of many things, including artificial fertilizer, has begun to attract chemical companies back to the United States, which certainly could use the jobs. But, as with any big industrial operation, chemicals manufacturing and storage brings a host of risks, toxic and explosive.
The right response is simple: Make companies comprehensively assess the risks they and those around their facilities face. Then they can take reasonable steps to guard against those risks and plan what to do when everything goes wrong. Wednesday night’s explosion, in other words, should not have been a total surprise, but a worst-case scenario the company had anticipated and prepared for.
As it stands, the federal regulatory system is far from simple, and it certainly could be more effective.
Journalists have already picked apart a 2011 risk assessment from West Fertilizers that the Center for Effective Government printed on its website. In it, the company told the EPA that it had 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site, but that there was no danger of explosion. Following Wednesday’s disaster, that claim seems to be tragically negligent.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has its own domain of jurisdiction over these companies, but it hadn’t inspected the West Fertilizer plant since 1985, which might have something to do with a shortage of inspectors.
The industry says that what happened in West is extremely rare. But, at the least, the accident has exposed the federal regulatory morass in which the industry operates. Every regulator with any kind of responsibility for West Fertilizers now seems to be investigating what happened last Wednesday night, along with an independent federal inquiry. They shouldn’t shy from telling Congress and President Obama how to make the system more rational.