AUSTIN -- State lawmakers began their inquiry into the explosion of the West Fertilizer Co. in a special hearing Wednesday morning, revealing the investigation into what caused it will take another week.
The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Commission called on top officials from several state agencies to testify.
"This is a learning process for the community at large and, ultimately, this is probably going to be a national issue," said Rep. Joe Pickett (D –– El Paso), chairman of the committee.
The state fire marshal told them that the on-site investigation into what caused the explosion will be completed on May 10. But he did add that anhydrous ammonia tanks were not the cause of the explosion, nor was a rail car that was close to the plant.
"We are at almost 300 interviews and that has come off of about 160 leads so there is a lot of information that we are looking to gather," Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kishner said. "Despite previous reports the anhydrous ammonia tanks never exploded, they were not compromised."
"I think this is an opportunity for us to understand how this all works, not to point any blame," said Committee Chairman Joseph Pickett.
Pickett told News 8's sister station KVUE that the goal of the first hearing is to gain an understanding of what role each agency played in the oversight, regulation, security, inspection, licensing and location of the West plant.
A federally mandated emergency planning committee did not exist in McLennan County, a News 8 investigation found. Called a Local Emergency Planning Committee, or LEPC, each Texas county is required to have one under orders from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The agencies plan for a chemical explosion much like what happened in West. During the hearing, Pickett asked a number of questions regarding the importance of an LEPC. McLennan County cannot provide evidence that one exists there, despite receiving federal dollars to help run one.
Audio tapes of first responders at the scene gave no indication that they expected to be going into an explosive situation.
"We have many other facilities like this, we've even had fires involving ammonium nitrate. This is not supposed to happen," said Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chairman Brian Shaw. "It's uncommon for us to do unscheduled visits to sites such as West."
But an explosion did happen. It killed 15 people and injured about 200. Many homes, businesses and schools in the immediate area of the plant were destroyed. Preliminary damage estimates are about $100 million.
The committee learned the state has issued 67,000 Hazardous Chemical Permits. The West Fertilizer Co. held 270 tons of ammonium nitrate; there are more than 1,100 permits for the chemical at facilities throughout Texas.
What became clear during the hearing is the role of the LEPCs throughout Texas. State emergency officials reiterated that local fire chiefs can survey these facilities in their communities. Chairman Pickett says if it's true that McLennan County did not have a LEPC in place, that's about to change.
"What I do know and what I do believe is the statement that I made about these Local Emergency Planning Committees being elevated to a new level and you are going to see a lot of requests coming from local communities for additional training and services," he said.
The committee called on testimony from DPS, the Texas Rangers, the Division of Emergency Management, the Office of the State Chemist and others.
Right now about 80 investigators from 28 agencies are on the ground, combing the entire 14.9-acre blast site. The federal government has spent $1 million investigating the explosion, the committee learned.
The fire marshal says they are close to making a determination of the cause, and they've narrowed it down to accidental or under minded –– at the time of the hearing, they said there's no sign the explosion was a criminal or terroristic act.
The plan reported its on-premise chemicals to the appropriate departments, but there was concern about ammonium nitrate that may have been on the property. That chemical is highly explosive.
KVUE's Foti Kallergis contributed to this report