As it stands, the federal regulatory system is far from simple, and it certainly could be more effective.
Journalists have already picked apart a 2011 risk assessment from West Fertilizers that the Center for Effective Government printed on its Web site. In it, the company told the Environmental Protection Agency that it had 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site, but that there was no danger of fire or explosion. Following Wednesday’s disaster, that claim seems to be tragically negligent.
Yet it probably stems from the fact that the EPA’s rules only cover gases such as ammonia, which is flammable only in extreme heat. There was another more volatile chemical on site, ammonium nitrate, that the EPA heard nothing about, because it is a solid. To store large amounts of ammonium nitrate, the company needed to file notice not with the EPA, but with the Department of Homeland Security, which reports suggest the company did not do.
Even if it had, it’s bizarre that all of this information wasn’t in the same place. Shouldn’t the possibility that the ammonium nitrate could ignite and explode have demanded that the company consider the chance that it would light up the ammonia? Risks shouldn’t just be considered in isolation from one another; companies must contemplate how they might interact.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, meanwhile, has its own domain of jurisdiction over these companies, but it hadn’t inspected the West Fertilizer plant since 1985, which, The Post’s Brad Plumer points out, might have something to do with a shortage of inspectors.
The industry says that what happened in West is extremely rare. But, at the least, the accident has exposed the federal regulatory morass in which the industry operates. Every regulator with any kind of responsibility for West Fertilizers now seems to be investigating what happened last Wednesday night, along with an independent federal inquiry. They shouldn’t shy from telling Congress and President Obama how to make the system more rational.