West Fertilizer Plant Cited by OSHA for Safety Lapses

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Texas company that operated a fertilizer plant where a thunderous explosion in April killed 15 people is facing $118,300 in fines for two dozen serious safety violations, including a failure to have an emergency response plan, federal officials said Thursday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said West Fertilizer Co. committed violations that included unsafe handling and storage of two fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate. The facility, which OSHA had not inspected since 1982, was also cited for inadequate labeling of storage tanks, failing to pressure test replacement hoses and not having respiratory protection or appropriate fire extinguishers.

The agency issued the citations Wednesday, but due to the government shutdown, they were not disclosed until Thursday, when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced them in a conference call with reporters.

Dan Keeney, a spokesman for the West Fertilizer Co., said the company's lawyers were reviewing the citations and proposed fine. The company has 15 days to pay the fine or file an administrative appeal with OSHA. OSHA's proposed penalties could be reduced.

"Based on what they see so far, it doesn't appear that the violations that are alleged have anything to do with the accident, but they're still reviewing it," he said.

There is a separate state criminal investigation underway, too. Investigators previously narrowed the number of possible causes to three: a problem with one of the plant's electrical systems, a battery-powered golf cart, and a criminal act. They ruled out others, including a rail car on site loaded with fertilizer or someone smoking.

The magnitude of the April blast at West Fertilizer knocked out windows and rooftops all over the tiny town of West, Texas, and registered as a small earthquake. Blast victims included 10 first responders and two others who volunteered, and debris spread as far as two miles away.

Boxer said that despite the government shutdown, she wanted news of the citations to get out to prevent similar incidents.

"All of these things that they are cited for are pretty much standard operating procedure with how you deal with these chemicals," Boxer said.

The mayor of West, Tommy Muska, said OSHA's citations were inadequate. He blamed the agency for failing to inspect the facility since the early 1980s and said the violations announced Thursday are like "shutting the door after the cow is already out."

Had the facility been inspected every five years, for example, instead of every 30, some of the problems might have been discovered ahead of time, and the explosion and deaths could have been prevented, Muska said. He noted that many rural communities have similar plants either near or in downtown areas. In May, The Associated Press drew on public records in 28 states and found more than 120 facilities within a potentially devastating blast zone of schoolchildren, the elderly and the sick. More than a half-dozen states, including Ohio, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho and South Carolina, refused to provide information to the AP about dangerous facilities, citing the risk of terrorist attacks and their interpretations of federal law.

Fertilizer plants need a closer look, Muska said. "We can be Monday morning quarterbacks all year long, but what we really need to do is try to prevent this," he said.

The blast prompted President Barack Obama to issue an executive order on Aug. 1 giving federal agencies 90 days to draft tighter standards for the storage and handling of ammonium nitrate.

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Associated Press writers Sam Hananel in Washington and Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this report.

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