By, Juan Parras
Last Thursday marked the six-month anniversary of the fertilizer plant explosion in West. The explosion killed 14 people and injured more than 200. It also destroyed 80 homes, damaged three of the town's four schools and wrecked a nearby nursing home. Images of the inferno and stunning scenes of damage from the explosion led many to ask, "How did this happen?" and, more important, "How do we make sure it doesn't happen again?"
These questions are significant for Texas because the oil and gas industry is such an important part of our economy. There are 1,419 facilities in Texas that store or use large amounts of toxic or explosive chemicals, according to data from EPA's Risk Management Plans - about 11 percent of the 12,761 facilities across the country.
Nationwide, more than 100 million people live close enough to facilities handling toxic chemicals that they could be hurt if a major explosion or leak occurred. In just one 16-mile stretch of land around Houston, there are 405 facilities like this.
And there are at least 3 million people living near these facilities. So for the safety of our communities, it's important we get this right.
What happened in West? It turns out that no federal agency had clear responsibility for overseeing the ammonium nitrate at the facility. Despite the fact that large quantities of ammonium nitrate were used to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the substance is not on the list of chemicals of which the Environmental Protection Agency keeps track through risk management plans.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, also is supposed to ensure that workplaces are safe. But the West facility had fewer than 10 employees; by law, OSHA is barred from conducting routine inspections at such sites. In all of Texas, there are only 98 inspectors for 573,000 workplaces.
The Department of Homeland Security also has a program - the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards - responsible for ensuring the security of the nation's chemical plants and tracking facilities that handle and store dangerous substances.
But the West facility failed to report ammonium nitrate to the agency. In other words, this facility fell through the oversight gaps between three federal agencies. And a significant number of those 405 facilities in the Houston area are likely to fall through, too.
How do we make sure it doesn't happen again? In August, President Barack Obama took the first step toward getting federal agencies to do a better job of oversight by issuing an executive order requiring the three federal agencies to together determine how to close the gaps. So the agencies jointly will be holding four "listening" sessions around the country to get input from community residents - and one is likely to be in Texas. Folks need to weigh in and make their concerns heard.
While better oversight and monitoring is important, the real solution is simple: Stop using toxic chemicals. Already, more than 600 plants and facilities have switched to safer alternatives, eliminating deadly chlorine gas and other hazardous substances and reducing health risks for 40 million people in 47 states.
This solution has widespread public support. We are part of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, which released a national poll recently showing that nearly two-thirds of likely voters agree that facilities should be required to use safer chemicals when alternatives are available and affordable. There is strong bipartisan support for these policies, especially when people understand the risks and alternatives.
The working group created by the president could recommend that safer chemical alternatives be required, but they are unlikely to do so without a strong push from the public.
We can make our communities cleaner and safer, but it will mean Texans have to be better informed and more engaged.