Texas lawmakers cool to stricter oversight of ammonium nitrate

Draft bill would require facilities that store chemical compound to meet stricter fire protection standards


July 02--AUSTIN -- The head of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday said more stringent oversight of ammonium nitrate storage facilities is the only way to avoid another disaster like last year's deadly explosion in West, a proposal already widely panned as burdensome overregulation by the panel's Republicans.

"Overregulation or no regulation? If that's the choice, I'll take my chances," said the committee's chair, Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso, one of only two Democrats on the panel. "But this is an important issue. Too many lives have been lost probably because of poor management on us."

At a meeting of the nine-member committee Tuesday, Pickett distributed draft legislation that would require ammonium nitrate storage facilities to live up to stricter fire protection standards or pay fines and penalties of up to $5,000 a day. The legislation, which Pickett said he will file in November, also would shift federal reporting requirements from the Department of State Health Services to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and would give the state fire marshal the power to inspect those locations. His proposal would not cover the transportation of ammonium nitrate.

Pickett's colleagues were quick to raise concerns with the draft bill, saying it would place unfunded mandates on industry that could harm Texas' business environment.

"We don't want to do damage to industry," said Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball. He called the April 2013 blast at the West Fertilizer Co., which killed 15 and injured over 160 others, "the 100-year storm" that was an "aberration," not the rule.

He raised concerns that Pickett's proposal to allow unpaid firefighters to inspect these facilities would mean increased training costs for all-volunteer forces, and reiterated that a bill proposed by a Democrat had little chance in a committee dominated by Republicans.

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, agreed with Fletcher, saying he was "concerned about overregulation," while Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, said he would prefer any new regulations to be voluntary.

While the draft bill includes language to require facilities to live up to national fire code standards, Pickett retreated from that proposal Tuesday, saying, "I prefer us coming up with our own recommendations in Texas, by Texans."

Two-thirds of the ammonium nitrate storage facilities -- about 62 -- in Texas are in jurisdictions with no local fire code. State law prohibits areas with a population under 250,000 from developing a code, and no statewide code exists.

Previous legislative attempts to require such a code, or place more stringent standards on ammonium nitrate facilities, have failed.

Thomas McGarity, an expert on environmental law and regulation at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, said the likelihood of more oversight is "very slim," noting that the Legislature "has not in the past been inclined to create new regulatory programs."

The explosion and fire in West have "faded from the public memory," McGarity suggested. "(O)n the other hand, the companies that are likely to be regulated are still around. Their lobbyists are still there and they're going to do their best to make sure nothing comes of this."

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