NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
WEST, Texas –– McLennan County officials did not follow federal regulations requiring public officials to plan for a major chemical incident such as last week's deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, a News 8 investigation has found.
The finding raises serious questions regarding the decision to send first responders into a potentially explosive situation.
As a community still grieves the 15 killed in the West Fertilizer Co. explosion, some are questioning the planning that, according to federal law, was required to have taken place under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.
Each business is required to report its hazardous chemicals to its county. West Fertilizer Co. had, in fact reported its ammonium nitrate to McLennan County. Next, officials are required to set up what's called a Local Emergency Planning Committee.
The LEPC's job, is to "develop an emergency response plan, review it at least annually, and provide information about chemicals in the community to the citizens," the act reads.
"We usually meet once or twice a year," said Steve Howie, the Emergency Management Coordinator of Kaufman County.
Howie heads the Kaufman County LEPC and said he is familiar with the dangers of ammonium nitrate. A fertilizer storage company similar to the one in West is located near downtown Terrell. He says emergency responders in his community are well aware that a fire in the fertilizer storage building means one thing.
"If it's in the building housing 50,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate we are going to evacuate the area and back off," said Howie.
As of Dec. 31, 2012, there were 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate at the West Fertilizer Co., federal records show.
In July 2009, Bryan city and fire department officials ordered the evacuation of almost the entire town after a building full of ammonium nitrate caught fire.
The fire chief knew that putting water on the fire could make it worse "and in some cases it can intensify to the point of exploding."
Richard Brown is a former Kaufman County volunteer fire chief. He says news of the fire responders’ death in West has sickened him.
"It should not have happened,” said Brown. “Those men should not have been where they were."
Brown says county and fire officials should have planned for the worst and any fire that involves ammonium nitrate should mean evacuation.
“They needed to inform their men of the hazards,” said Brown. “They needed to formulate a written response plan to those types of hazards."
The federally mandated body of community leaders designed to plan for such hazards did not exist in McLennan County. The official listed as the head of the McLennan County LEPC is County Judge Scott Felton. Felton, appointed to the post last year, told News 8 in an interview that he's never heard of the LEPC.
McLennan County Emergency Operations Coordinator Frank Patterson said he has no knowledge of an emergency planning committee or any meetings with officials in West about potential risks in the community.
After requesting any evidence of LEPC operations, meetings, plans of actions or plans for evacuations, especially with respect to hazards posed at the fertilizer company in West, Patterson's office said no such information exists.
Neither Patterson nor the McLennan County Judge would speak on camera. Both say they have been too busy helping the victims of West. The State Fire Marshal's Office on Friday released a statement saying no actions taken by the firefighters in any way contributed to the explosion.