Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Raises Important Questions

fire and wreckage after plant explosion

Last night, there was a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in central Texas (outside of Waco), which killed as many as 15 people and injured more than 160. Though investigators are still trying to determine the exact cause of the incident, the West Fertilizer Co. explosion raises serious questions about managing the risks that facilities can pose to local communities.

Facilities that handle toxic, flammable, or otherwise reactive chemicals are required to submit risk management plans to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies. These plans help local fire, police, and emergency responders prepare for and respond to chemical accidents and help residents understand the chemical hazards in their communities.

Some are already questioning if the risk management plan filed for the Texas fertilizer plant was complete and accurate because it specifically stated that the chemicals on site were not a fire or explosion hazard. These are important and legitimate questions to pursue after such an incident. But there are even broader questions about our risk management efforts that we should step back and consider. Are the risk management plans that facilities file specific or comprehensive enough? Is there sufficient oversight to ensure that facilities actually plan responses for worst-case scenarios? Are facilities properly sharing their plans with local first responders and engaging the local community? An emergency plan is no good to anyone if it isn't publicly available and understandable.

Communities need ready to access emergency information to protect themselves and their families from these types of disasters. Despite the risks posed by facilities, local residents often do not know what chemicals are being produced and stored on-site, nor are they aware of the potential dangers and response plans when emergencies occur.

Greater transparency and engagement with communities would improve the public's ability to identify and remedy weaknesses in emergency response plans and chemical hazards at facilities nationwide.

Editor's note (04/18/2013, 6:20 p.m. Eastern Time): This post has been edited to update the number of fatalities from the fertilizer plant explosion.

Image by flickr user The Bay Area's News Station, used under a Creative Commons license

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