California senator battles EPA over 'lack of urgency' after West explosion

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on June 27, 2013 at 7:17 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 28 at 9:05 AM

WASHINGTON –– Tempers erupted on Capitol Hill Thursday over what one U.S. senator called the Environmental Protection Agency's "lack of urgency" over the disaster in West, Texas.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is leading the charge in Washington to find out what happened in West and how to prevent it from happening again.

Just last week, News 8 uncovered an unmarked and dilapidated warehouse in Athens, Texas, where tons of hazardous ammonium nitrate was being stored. A wooden structure in similar condition existed at the West fertilizer blending plant when it exploded.

Thursday on Capitol Hill when an EPA Assistant Administrator began to testify, it was Sen. Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, who erupted. She's upset at  what she calls a lack of urgency by the EPA, considering 15 people died, scores were injured, and hundreds of millions in damages were incurred in the West explosion.

"I'm sympathetic to the fact that work has to be done," Boxer said. "I'm unsympathetic to the attitude that I hear, which is a lack of urgency, because lives are being lost and recommendations were made a long time ago."

The last time the EPA issued an advisory warning that ammonium nitrate could explode under certain conditions was 1997.

"So you are reading to me and talking credit for something that happened in the last century?" Boxer asked Barry Breen, deputy assistant administrator at the EPA.

Meanwhile, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, outlined what he said were obvious violations of OSHA standards at the West facility -- violations that were never detected.

"However, OHSA has not focused on ammonium nitrate, and hadn't inspected West since 1985," he said.

And while Sen. Boxer called for greater and immediate action, very few other senators were there to listen. Only Boxer stayed for the entire hearing, and only three others even attended.

Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz are not on the committee, but chose not to attend. Both said they were monitoring the proceedings.

But in the audience paying close attention was the brother-in-law of firefighter Kevin Sanders, who died not knowing the danger he faced.

"It's been a very trying experience," said Timothy White of Indiana. "That's why it's important to be here today, to make sure that this never happens again, is extremely important."

Others testified as to the critical roles played by each county's local emergency planning committee, or LEPC. News 8 was the first to determine that McLennan County did not have a functioning LEPC at the time of the West explosion.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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