For public safety, regulation is necessary

All the facts are not yet known and investigators have not said with certainty what caused a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

But we have learned since the blast that West Fertilizer Co. had been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would usually trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

That oversight was never given, apparently, because West Fertilizer didn't disclose it. The federal agency wants to know of the presence of ammonium nitrate because it can be used in bomb making.

Might the state have some responsibility to have known the explosive chemical compound was on hand?

In fact, it did know.

Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services - which apparently were not shared with federal regulators - showed the plant had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on hand last year. The amount that would trigger federal oversight? Four hundred pounds.

Another filing showed the plant also contained 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, which is poisonous if inhaled and combustible when exposed to fire.

Wouldn't Texans feel safer knowing regulators were working together to watch out for such dangers literally next door? Not according to Gov. Rick Perry.

Without even knowing the blast's cause, Perry said Monday more state oversight would not have prevented the disaster. And besides, he claimed, Texans prefer freedom from regulation over being safe from such dangers.

That is absurd.

Of course we want to know, and regulation should absolutely ensure a buffer between such deadly materials and homes, schools and nursing homes like those flattened or damaged last week in West.

Under federal rules passed in the 1980s and 1990s, chemical plants are obligated to inform nearby communities about the risks they pose. They also have to explain to the Environmental Protection Agency how they reduce the probability of catastrophe. One problem is plants aren't sufficiently compelled to eliminate that potential in the first place. West's report on anhydrous, for example, indicated it presented no danger of fire or explosion.

Toss weak state oversight on top of toothless federal standards and West is the result. Still, Perry claims better state regulation would not have made a difference. We can't help wondering what the families of the 14 people killed might say about that, or if the 200 injured would agree. How about the dozens who lost their homes and everything they owned?

The tragedy in West points out an apparently ineffective patchwork of local, state and federal regulation with no coordination. It appears development was allowed in unsafe proximity to the plant. That may be a local zoning issue. Perhaps firefighters were not adequately trained for fighting a blaze surrounded by explosive materials. That could be a local or state issue. Solving those problems and similar shortcomings at plants elsewhere in Texas, of course, will not bring back lives and property lost in West. But it might save lives.

The fact is government - including the state - does have responsibility for regulating industry and to work cooperatively to do what it takes to ensure Texans they're not living next to another bomb ready to go off.

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