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Agencies That Oversee Fertilizer Plants Have Spotty Records

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Melissa Block talks to Danny Zwerdling about what's known so far in the Texas fertilizer plant explosion. They cover its operations, past safety problems, the history of fertilizer plant explosions, and possible responses by regulators and investigators


NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has been looking into the history of this fertilizer plant and explosions that have happened at other fertilizer plants. And Danny, what can you tell us about West Fertilizer and its history? Have there been safety problems before?

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: There have been but let me first say, it seems kind of like a homespun operation, not huge. They have seven or eight employees. According to Dunn and Bradstreet, they had about a million dollars in sales last year. And back in 2006, there were a couple of incidents that might or might not shed light on what's happened more recently.

First of all, somebody complained that there were very bad ammonia smells. And the Texas State Commission on Environmental Quality investigated, found that they didn't have some proper permits. Around the same time, the EPA investigated the plant and found that they didn't have a proper risk management plan. They didn't have formal written maintenance plans.

They didn't have good employee training records. The plant had failed to show that they'd considered the potential hazards properly and done anything about them. Now, that doesn't mean that the plant didn't do anything, but they had no records to show that they had. So EPA fined them $2300, not much.

BLOCK: Well, how big a problem are fertilizer plants in general? Is this kind of explosion very unusual?

ZWERDLING: Well, since the 1990s, I found only around a handful of big explosions at fertilizer companies which have killed people, but there's a much bigger picture here. And that is that, you know, people generally think chemical factories, a-ha, they must be off away from the population in some, you know, distant field somewhere.

The fact is that there are hundreds of accidents at chemical facilities every year, including fertilizer plants, smaller ones. And many of these facilities are, as you just heard in John's piece, right in the neighborhood or right near a neighborhood, you know, just a few hundred feet from homes and schools. And the agencies that are supposed to oversee these plants, which include OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health, and the EPA, they have a very spotty and difficult record.

OSHA, for example, since - 1980, was the high point in terms of OSHA having enough - having inspectors to go around the country looking at potential violations. The number of compliance officers per workers now is half what it was in 1980. Big budget problems there.

BLOCK: Daniel, thanks. That's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. He's part of our investigations desk.

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