U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Texas Fertilizer Disaster: Voluntary Compliance No Substitute for an Efficient Regulatory System

“[T]here is no substitute for an efficient regulatory system that ensures that all companies are operating to the same high standards. We cannot depend on voluntary compliance alone.”

That’s what Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said this week. The CSB, an independent federal investigative agency, was releasing its preliminary findings on the West, Texas, fertilizer explosion of just over one year ago, which killed 14 individuals.

The CSB faulted the company involved and pointed to gaps in the regulatory system – a lesson that needs to be headed here and to prevent other disasters. Said Moure-Eraso:

“The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.”

The report noted that:

  • The explosion at West Fertilizer resulted from an intense fire in a wooden warehouse building that led to the detonation of approximately 30 tons of ammonium nitrate stored inside in wooden bins.
  • The building lacked a sprinkler system or other systems to automatically detect or suppress fire.
  • Texas has not adopted a statewide fire code, and state law actually prohibits most small rural counties from adopting a fire code.
  • Although some U.S. distributors have constructed fire-resistant concrete structures for storing ammonium nitrate, fertilizer industry officials have reported to the CSB that wooden buildings are still the norm for the distribution of ammonium nitrate fertilizer across the U.S.

The facility that exploded operated under few rules. It didn’t have a sprinkler system because no sprinkler system was required.

Lax rules have consequences. That’s a lesson policymakers need to take to heart – whether it’s about fertilizer facilities, food manufacturers or farmers, big polluters, automakers or any other area where the public’s safety and wellbeing is at stake. The CSB report underscores the need for a more pro-active, aggressive approach by regulators to protect the public.

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