AUSTIN — Two months ago Monday, a powerful explosion at a fertilizer blending facility devastated the Central Texas town of West.
Fifteen people were killed and dozens were injured in what many believe was a preventable accident.
On Monday in Austin, a small group of state lawmakers decided not to wait for the federal government to act. They took their own action, hoping to at least begin making sure that a West-type accident doesn’t happen again.
The images of the destruction, the heart-wrenching tales of loss and ruin will stay with the residents of West and others for a lifetime. But the culprit being blamed for the explosion — the chemical fertilizer ammonium nitrate — is still out there at 129 businesses storing 10,000 pounds or more on site.
It is a chemical that is virtually unregulated; in some cases unprotected; and in many cases the community is unaware of its existence.
For the second time since the April 17 explosion, House Public Safety Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, has called the state's top experts into hearings for answers. Testifying before the committee Monday were the heads of the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Department of Public Safety and the State Fire Marshal.
What went wrong in West and how can they help keep it from happening again?
"My concerns are, we are going to know," said Rep Joe Pickett (D-El Paso). "At this point, it may be something that is only on a public record somewhere, but we are going to get that information out."
In less than two hours, committee members had come up with a list of recommendations, beginning with asking state officials to help produce a website disclosing ammonium nitrate storage facilities all across Texas.
"The best thing to do is put it on a web page like our sex offenders, so the public has a right to know," said Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw. "A thousand pages on an Excel spreadsheet, but they can simply just put in their zip code"
The committee also wants to make a "best practices" list available to volunteer fire departments for how to handle ammonium nitrate in an emergency.
The committee wants the state fire marshal to offer free safety inspections to any facility that asks, and recommends that all facilities storing ammonium nitrate be labeled as such.
Only one committee member, Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), voiced any resistance.
"But you can paperwork a company to death with just list after list, and signs, and of this kind of stuff," Flynn said. "I think we need to keep it in perspective. I think it's a major problem and an accident."
Despite Flynn's misgivings about burdening the agriculture industry, the committee voted to move forward, agreeing to meet again in two weeks to see what progress has been made.
The committee also voted to send a message to FEMA. It wants the federal disaster agency to reconsider its decision not to provide more disaster funds to West.