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Texas Plant Explosion Underscores Hodgepodge State of Regulations and Zoning Laws

Apr 26, 2013

The fire and subsequent explosion at a fertilizer plant in central Texas on April 17, 2013 – which fatally injured 15 people, wounded another 200 and also destroyed two schools, a nursing home and other things –underscores the hodgepodge state of regulations and zoning laws that govern the locations of facilities that handle hazardous chemicals in relation to where people live.

There are some 6,000 retail fertilizer plants in the U.S., Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs at The Fertilizer Institute, told the Washington Post. They are regulated by state agencies, with some oversight from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies.

Government officials have been slow on the draw when it comes to preventing potentially dangerous facilities from being located near schools and residential areas, Kelly Haragan, environmental clinic director at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, told Bloomberg.

“These patterns take a long time to change,” Haragan, who works with advocates for the creation of buffer zones around industrial sites, told Bloomberg.  “In some cases the companies were there first.”

Texas, for one, has been bolstering its support for local business in an attempt to attract more companies to the state. As a result, it has been reluctant to add to industry’s regulatory burdens, Texas Governor Rick Perry told Bloomberg.

“We are a state that does not believe in overburdening businesses,” Perry said.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, millions across the U.S. reside near high-risk industrial locations. Eighty-nine chemical plants put about a million nearby residents at risk; 33 of these facilities are in Texas alone, the report added.

It is possible the damage done in Texas by the explosion of the fertilizer plant may wake some up to the benefits of some basic revisions to regulations. In the current climate, it’s expected that thousands of similar fertilizer centers around the U.S. will now be subjected to closer scrutiny from both local residents and government officials, Chris Damas, an independent fertilizer analyst with Barrie, Ontario-based BCMI Research, told Bloomberg.

“It looks like regulators dropped the ball,” he said, adding that, then again, “people may forget this terrible accident, and necessary improvements in fertilizer storage regulation won’t happen.”

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