AUSTIN, Texas - The Trump administration is scaling back chemical plant safety measures that were put in place after a Texas fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 that killed 15 people.
A small wooden Memorial remains across from the vacant lot where the West Fertilizer Co. plant once stood. Nearby is another; dedicated to the 15 people who died when the plant exploded April 17, 2013.
Thursday the EPA announced it was modifying a package of new rules for chemical plant operators that was drafted after the explosion in West. The Agency rescinded:
- The requirement for third-party audits after any incident.
- The consideration of theoretically safer technology and alternative risk management measures.
- A mandate to conduct a root cause investigation after any accident or near-miss.
- A rule that makes it possible for anyone to know what chemicals are stored on-site.
The Obama era rules followed a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. plant that caused ammonium nitrate to ignite, triggering a massive explosion that ripped open a large crater. Ten firefighters were among those killed.
Security was a main concern for the EPA. According to a statement, the agency “received a comment warning that the open-ended information disclosure provisions, to allow anonymous access to sensitive chemical facility hazard information, could assist terrorists in selecting targets and or increase the severity of an attack.”
The EPA did keep in place rules requiring safety meetings with local authorities, notification drills, and safety exercises. Some rules were modified; like field exercises and communicating with the public 90 days after an incident; but only if damage is caused offsite.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler says the changes do away with "unnecessary administrative burdens."
It was also noted that the EPA rules never covered ammonium nitrate; which is stored at fertilizer plants. The agency pointed out that the explosion in West was caused by arson and was not an accident.
State lawmakers addressed what happened in West and that legislation still remains in place. Back in 2015, laws were passed authorizing fire marshals to inspect facilities and allowed them to issue citations. Storage rules were also put into place. The federal rules did not specifically address that, although some OSHA safety rules do apply.
A review that was done after the explosion identified 19 Texas fertilizer plants similar to the one that exploded in West. According to that report, all 19 plants are located next to churches, hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. A recommendation to change that has not gained any traction.
Environmental groups criticized the decision as one that would put people living near chemical plants at greater risk.