Searchable web database among state plans in wake of West disaster


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

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Posted on June 17, 2013 at 6:38 PM

Updated Monday, Jun 17 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Exactly two months since the deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant in the town of West, lawmakers continue to search for solutions.
"What should be the very next step that we do to keep this from happening again?" state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, asked a panel of state officials at a Monday morning hearing.
According to Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, the first step will be to create a website to let the public know where potentially dangerous chemicals are being stored. The website will be based on the DPS sex offender website, which allows the public to search by zip code to easily find out which sex offenders may be living near them. McCraw says the bottom line is that knowing what's nearby is important.
"The same thing can be said about chemical facilities," McCraw explained. "Why wouldn't you want to know where they're located at? And the data's already there. The Department of State Health Services has the data. It's in an Excel spreadsheet capacity. It can be easily overlaid onto a map."
Lawmakers additionally tasked officials with producing a list of regulatory "best practices" for communities like West with similar facilities in their back yards. Officials will look into signage that would make it easier to identify areas in which ammonium nitrate, the common fertilizer responsible for the blast, is stored. The Office of the State Fire Marshal and DPS were also asked to provide training to volunteer fire departments to more safely handle future disasters. 
"We're going to get on it right away," Connealy responded to media questions after the hearing concerning the timetable for the website and other initiatives requested by the committee. "I've got a two-week deadline to give a status of how soon we expect to get this up."
Businesses are already required to report the storage of certain quantities of potentially dangerous chemicals to the federal government. The reports are kept on file with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), yet the department currently has no authority to investigate or punish businesses that fail to comply.
Lawmakers were troubled to find that since the blast, the state has received more than 600 of those reports from facilities which had previously filed none. Of those, 129 dealt with at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate (the minimum required to report), including at least one facility similar to the plant in West. 
"It only took one, so I'm very concerned that there's one or two that are new reporters," Pickett told KVUE. "I will follow that up with the Department of State Health Services too to find out if they're new reporters because they're handling stuff that they've never did before, or because of all of what's happening they're now reporting and hadn't." 
State officials and committee members were united in voicing frustration over the Federal Emergency Management Agency's decision not to declare West a "major disaster." A set of talking points released by FEMA explained the agency will continue to provide reimbursements for debris removal and emergency protective measures, noting that many of the buildings destroyed by the explosion were covered under insurance.
"Show me where you don't see this as a disaster," Pickett told media after the committee voted unanimously to draft a letter to FEMA expressing its concerns. "I don't know if you can ever embarrass the feds over anything, but somebody there might just do the right thing."
Investigators have determined that the fire caused the fertilizer to detonate, but did not originate within the ammonium nitrate itself. Although the investigation remains open, Connealy suggested Monday it's likely the cause of the initial fire may never be determined.