WEST — Twelve months have passed since the devastating fertilizer explosion in West, yet in that time no new regulations have passed the Texas legislature.
In fact, not a single such bill was even filed.
“There were none,” confirmed State Rep. Joe Pickett. He maintains that legislators needed to take their time to get it right.
A year after the deadly blast, and many months after subsequent investigations, lawmakers are now discussing potential new regulations in the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee that Rep. Pickett chairs.
When asked whether he foresees new regulations coming, Pickett said flatly: "I do."
The veteran lawmaker knows that translating those two simple words into real action can be a tricky prospect in a conservative legislature that is renowned for its historical resistance to impose new regulations on businesses — especially with sweeping statewide reforms.
Pickett says filing too broad a bill would get a negative response.
“It would be like, 'Hey Pickett, I saw that bill you filed. Sorry about what happened in West, but man, that is just way too far. I can’t support that. Good luck,'” he explained.
So Pickett’s committee is now considering more "passable" legislation, like requiring companies that store chemicals to more promptly disclose what they are housing.
Another consideration is to give the state fire marshal authority to oversee stockpiles of chemicals like ammonium nitrate, which is what exploded in West.
Pickett believes lawmakers might even accept a call for sprinkler systems at some fertilizer depots to extinguish a minor fire that could, in turn, ignite a major explosion, which is believed to have happened one year ago.
Pickett believes private insurance companies may pave the way for reforms. The lawmaker says he has been hearing rumblings from around the state that insurers are balking at providing liability coverage at chemical storage facilities that are still doing “business as usual."
Pickett says that while it looks like not much has been done regarding new regulations, there is a lot of work occurring behind the scenes. He is confident he will have a draft bill ready for circulation by this summer, months in advance of next year’s legislative session.
He said that should allow everyone concerned to “Look at this, beat it up, roll their eyes, and say, 'You know, this is livable.”
But Sara Smith, program director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group, said all of that should have already happened. She said the failure to pass meaningful new regulations at the state level is “surprising and saddening."
Smith said TexPIRG has been pressing for new safety measures since the disaster in West. Early on, though, she said the Austin-based organization assessed that change might come a lot more quickly from policy makers in Washington than the ones in Austin.
“So we focused most of our time and energy on the EPA," she said.
Smith believes the work with the feds will produce new safety standards in the not-too-distant future, but she said she and her colleagues are still open to the idea of working with state lawmakers in the upcoming session.
One way or the other, Smith's hope is that there will be a real plan to better regulate hazardous chemicals in Texas by the time the second anniversary of the West disaster rolls around next spring.