Feds' Feud at Deadly West Plant Blast Site Exposed

May 28, 2013
The turf battle among agencies may result in a cause never being determined as tons of inert ammonium nitrate were hauled away.

May 25--Five weeks after an exploding fertilizer plant devastated a wide swath of the town of West, the federal agency charged with finding out how such industrial accidents happen has curtailed its investigation, saying the blast site has been so disturbed by the search for signs of criminal wrongdoing that it can yield little useful evidence.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which makes recommendations aimed at averting future disasters, has recalled most of the emergency response team it rushed to West after the April 17 blast. Only five of the dozen members now remain, said the board's managing director, Daniel Horowitz.

On Friday, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Texas State Fire Marshal's office handed the demolished West Fertilizer Co. property back to attorneys for the firm, and the chemical safety board, known as the CSB, prepared to relinquish its interest in the site because "we just don't think there's much left," Horowitz said.

Earlier this week, the agency went public with the turf battle that escalated in West as weeks went by and a criminal investigation dragged on. In a seven-page letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso complained that the ATF and state agents kept his response team largely at bay instead of allowing a concurrent investigation to proceed. They blocked witness interviews, removed evidence and used earthmoving equipment that altered the site so "massively and irreversibly" that the CSB investigation was compromised, he said.

Part of the missing evidence: 20 to 30 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that didn't explode when a similar amount blew up as a fire raced through the plant. Analyzing the material that remained inert could help explain why the rest did not. "They took it all away," Horowitz said.

The State Fire Marshal's office has fired back with a statement saying that the CSB "was provided access to the scene" and Moure-Eraso was given a tour. "No evidence was destroyed or compromised," the statement said.

According to Reuters, ATF spokesman Rich Marianos characterized Moure-Eraso's criticism as inaccurate and disrespectful. "We believe the unified command structure and all the investigators did an extremely professional job," he said.

However, the ATF and the fire marshal's office acknowledge that their criminal investigation took precedence, and that access to the site by other investigators was restricted for that reason. Still, despite the May 10 arrest of a West paramedic for unlawful possession of pipe bomb components, law enforcement has offered no evidence that the explosion or fire that preceded it was anything other than accidental.

Boxer, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has asked the two agencies to respond to her office "as quickly as possible" to the issues Moure-Eraso raised, a member of her staff said. U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, wrote Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to "call on ATF" to work with the CSB "in a cooperative manner."

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who visited West two days after the explosion, said, "While the cause remains unknown, I remain hopeful to find more details that may help determine how this happened, and encourage agencies at the local, state and federal level to work together in a constructive manner towards that goal."

"It's a shame they don't cooperate more when the issue is to find out what happened and why it happened -- not just who is to blame, but the root cause," said Beaumont lawyer Brent Coon, who worked alongside the CSB in the aftermath of the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. "What CSB does is very unique, very beneficial to industry as well as the community at large."

He explained the approach this way: "ATF would come in from a criminal standpoint and say, 'This guy with a backpack blew it up.' CSB would ask, 'How did a guy with a backpack get in, and how do you prevent that from happening in the first place? Was there no security system? No process for red-flagging suspicious persons?'"

West isn't the first place the CSB has butted heads with criminal investigators. In a 2010 letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the agency cited eight instances since 2002 when its staff were denied access to industrial accident sites by ATF agents or other law enforcement officials, though no criminal activity was ever proven in any of the cases.

"Other agencies don't cooperate because they're very territorial," said Coon.

With only 42 employees, the CSB has a backlog of open investigations, including the long-running Deepwater case which has taxed its resources. Modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates plane and train crashes, the CSB has one-tenth of that agency's staff and budget.

In West, the CSB planned an expensive, wide-ranging investigation that sought first to answer the paramount question: What sequence of events caused 30 tons of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which is only explosive under specific conditions, to detonate? It's not clear now whether that answer will emerge, but the agency still intends to address underlying issues, such as the adequacy of:

--Current standards for safely handling ammonium nitrate (the fertilizer storage facility lacked a sprinkler system).

--State and local fire codes (there are none in West or statewide).

--Chemical hazards training for firefighters (12 volunteer emergency responders died in the blast).

--Land-use regulations near hazardous facilities (homes, apartments and a school built close to the plant were destroyed).

Though the CSB cannot issue fines or seek criminal or civil sanctions against private companies, it has played a leading role in identifying lessons to be learned from petrochemical disasters.

After the BP refinery explosion in Texas City, which killed 15 workers and injured 180 others, the company blamed employee error. But CSB found that a "root cause" of the disaster was corporate cost-cutting -- fatigued employees worked 12-hour shifts for 28 days straight -- and management failures.

The agency recommended several changes in safety practices that were quickly adopted by the refinery industry, and the company later paid more than $100 million in fines for violations of the Clean Air Act and safety standards.

Copyright 2013 - Austin American-Statesman

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!