Texas fertilizer company didn't heed disclosure rules
The DHS focuses "specifically on enhancing security to reduce the risk of terrorism at certain high-risk chemical facilities," said agency spokesman Peter Boogaard. "The West Fertilizer Co. facility in West, Texas is not currently regulated under the CFATS program."
The West Fertilizer facility was subject to other reporting, permitting and safety programs, spread across at least seven state and federal agencies, a patchwork of regulation that critics say makes it difficult to ensure thorough oversight.
An expert in chemical safety standards said the two major federal government programs that are supposed to ensure chemical safety in industry - led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) - do not regulate the handling or storage of ammonium nitrate. That task falls largely to the DHS and the local and state agencies that oversee emergency planning and response.
More than 4,000 sites nationwide are subject to the DHS program.
"This shows that the enforcement routine has to be more robust, on local, state and federal levels," said the expert, Sam Mannan, director of process safety center at Texas A&M University. "If information is not shared with agencies, which appears to have happened here, then the regulations won't work."
Hodgepodge of Regulation
Chemical safety experts and local officials suspect this week's blast was caused when ammonium nitrate was set ablaze. Authorities suspect the disaster was an industrial accident, but haven't ruled out other possibilities.
The fertilizer is considered safe when stored properly, but can explode at high temperatures and when it reacts with other substances.
"I strongly believe that if the proper safeguards were in place, as are at thousands of (DHS) CFATS-regulated plants across the country, the loss of life and destruction could have been far less extensive," said Rep. Thompson.
A blaze was reported shortly before a massive explosion leveled dozens of homes and blew out an apartment building.
A Ryder truck packed with the substance mixed with fuel oil exploded to raze the Oklahoma federal building in 1995. Another liquid gas fertilizer kept on the West Fertilizer site, anhydrous ammonia, is subject to DHS reporting and can explode under extreme heat.
Wednesday's blast heightens concerns that regulations governing ammonium nitrate and other chemicals - present in at least 6,000 depots and plants in farming states across the country - are insufficient. The facilities serve farmers in rural areas that typically lack stringent land zoning controls, many of the facilities sit near residential areas.