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After Explosion, Texas Adopts a 'Fertilizer Happens' Policy

They're still not sure what caused the explosion or how to prevent another one, but Texas officials are united on who should be held responsible. They all want the federal government to pay up.
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As Gov. Rick Perry heads to New York to tout the business-friendly regulatory climate back home in Texas, state lawmakers and officials are digging through the lessons learned from the West fertilizer explosion to determine what they can do to prevent another fatal disaster. They're still not sure what caused the explosion or how to prevent another one, but Texas officials are united on who should be held responsible. They all want the federal government to pay up.

Reactions from Texas Republicans ranged from disappointment to betrayal when the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Texas' request for $34.4 million for uninsured losses, most of which would go to rebuild a school. FEMA has already given West $16 million to reimburse them for first responders and clean up, but Texas' application was rejected because the state failed to demonstrate that it didn't have the money.

This struck some local officials as a broken promise by the president. "We'll be there even after the cameras leave and after the attention turns elsewhere," Obama said during the memorial for West's victims. "Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community."

"While President Obama has turned his back on Texas and gone against his word, we will continue to take care of our neighbors," said Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, Rick Perry's heir apparent, in a statement.

Just how Texas will take care of its neighbors was up for debate for two hours of public testimony yesterday before the Texas House Public Safety Committee where the chairman, Democrat Rep. Joe Pickett, wanted to focus on "lessons to be learned" from the explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed three schools, an apartment complex, and entire neighborhoods.

The main lesson Texas officials want to convey is that this is just not their responsibility. For example, it is not the state's duty to inspect the 129 companies that have at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate to see if they comply with the fire code. This is because the state forbids rural counties where these plants usually are located from having fire codes.

There are 16 fertilizer plants with operations of the scale that existed in West. When a lawmaker asked State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy whether he knew whether any of those 16 plants had schools or homes nearby, Connealy responded with a succinct, "No, sir."

The best that Texas can do is to come up with a website where Texans can search by zip code to see whether they live near a business that handles ammonium nitrate. This, the state's first and so far only post-West reform to safety rules, would be as likely to prevent another explosion as a sex offender registry is to keep people from getting raped.

Of course, that wasn't all that the panel demanded. In addition to the website, the lawmakers asked the state fire marshal to "offer" to inspect fertilizer plants, to research whether federal law requires disclosure of hazardous chemicals on site, and to offer rural committees "best practices" on fire codes despite the fact that federal law forbids counties with fewer than 250,000 residents from adopting their own fire codes. All of this would be strictly voluntary.

But even that meek response was too much for one committee member, Republican Rep. Dan Flynn, who warned, "You can paperwork a company to death with just list after list, and signs, and of this kind of stuff. I think we need to keep it in perspective. I think it's a major problem and an accident."

Whatever his faults, inconsistency is not one of them. Rep. Flynn also offered an anti-regulatory response to the Newtown shooting, offering a bill to cut the number of hours training hours required to get a concealed handgun license from 10 to four.

"A lot of people who try to get their license, they have to take a day off of work, or they have to take a whole Saturday to go do this where, four hours, range time, you can do the same thing and it accomplishes it," he explained.

So far, no Texas official has publicly acknowledged the obvious, that our official response is to encourage economic growth and cross our fingers that this will never happen again. But we should not be surprised. Believing that business is always the answer and government is always the problem is an article of faith in the Texas Miracle.

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