It’s been almost three decades since Adair Grain Inc.’s West Fertilizer Company, the scene of a deadly explosion last week in Texas, was inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
According to its online database, OSHA last inspected the plant in February 1985, and OSHA is now sending inspectors to the site of the blast to see if there were health or safety violations at the plant.
“The ratio of OSHA inspectors to workers has fallen over the past three decades, and there are now 2,200 for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the last fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to a report by the AFL-CIO.”
“Definitely, somewhere along the line at the federal level, there was a failure,” Sean Moulton, director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington-based watchdog, said in an interview.
“It was quite clear that they just didn’t consider flammability or explosiveness to be a problem, and given what occurred that was clearly shortsighted.”
Bloomberg reports the fire and explosion flattened houses and devastated the center of the town of West, about 80 miles south of Dallas.
At least 14 people are dead and 200 injured after the blast. Officials now say 12 of the 14 killed were first responders, CBS News’ Steve Futterman reports.
The blast was so powerful it registered as a small earthquake. Assistant state fire marshal Kelly Kistner said the blast left “a large crater.”
Bloomberg notes West Fertilizer produced anhydrous ammonia, a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen that farmers inject into the soil as a crop nutrient. It also held in storage as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer that was used by Timothy McVeigh.
The company has been cited for a series of violations over the past few years.
On June 12 the company was ordered to pay $5,250 for improperly planning to transport anhydrous ammonia. Violations included the use of unauthorized cargo tanks and failure to develop a transportation security plan, but according to a PHMSA order, the company had corrected the violations.
In 2006, the EPA conducted an inspection of the risk management plan at the plant and found a number of deficiencies, including that the company was two years late filing the document. It fined the facility $2,300, and directed it to correct deficiencies, such as the failure to document hazards, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said.
Lobbying groups for the chemical industry control the U.S. Senate and have prevented stricter federal oversight of chemical production and storage facilities.
Environmental groups, unions and safety groups pressed for more federal oversight after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, but legislation they advocated never passed Congress. The EPA considered regulations but dropped that idea under George W. Bush’s administration.