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Smoking gun in West, Texas, fertilizer blast: lack of government oversight

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Regardless, OSHA lacks the resources to undertake the kind of comprehensive inspection needed to ensure compliance with the process safety standard at small facilities like West Fertilizer Company. OSHA’s tiny staff of around 2,400 inspectors is spread so thin that it would take more than 90 years to conduct even cursory inspections of all eligible workplaces in Texas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspected the facility in 2006 and assessed a fine of $2,300 for failing to update a risk management plan, among other violations involving employee training records and maintenance. The company responded in 2011 with an updated plan stating that the “worst case release scenario” was a release of the contents of a storage tank over a period of 10 minutes; the threat of an explosion was not mentioned. The EPA  was apparently satisfied. The EPA lacks the staff to inspect any given facility more than once every decade or so.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has so few inspectors that it can only inspect small plants like the West facility in response to complaints. It inspected the West plant in 2006 in response to a complaint about bad odors, and it was satisfied when the company applied for a new permit. Inspectors weren’t focused on the risk of explosion, though the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did fine the company $5,250 that year for improperly planning to transport anhydrous ammonia.

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