WASHINGTON (AP) — The government has no way of fully knowing which U.S. chemical facilities stock ammonium nitrate, the substance that exploded last year at a Texas fertilizer plant and killed 14 people, congressional investigators say. Outdated federal policies, poor information sharing with states and a raft of industry exemptions point to scant federal oversight, says a new report obtained by The Associated Press.
The report found regulatory gaps in environmental and worker protections and urged broad changes to U.S. safety rules. President Barack Obama pledged to stiffen enforcement following the explosion on April 17, 2013, in West, Texas.
Without improved monitoring, federal regulators "will not know the extent to which dangerous conditions at some facilities may continue to exist," concluded the report by the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO found that the Homeland Security Department's database captured only a fraction of the ammonium nitrate storage facilities in the U.S. The federal database shows that 1,345 facilities in 47 states store ammonium nitrate. But spot checks of similar state records found that the federal list missed as many as two-thirds of the storage sites, said the report, which faulted companies' noncompliance, legal loopholes or poor federal coordination with states.
About half of the facilities that are in the federal database were located in six states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. They include chemical plants or any location that stores ammonium nitrate, a widely used fertilizer, such as farm supply retailers or fertilizer distribution warehouses.
The government audit tracked a monthlong reporting effort last year by the AP that drew upon public records in 28 states. The AP investigation found that schools, nursing homes and hospitals were within the potentially devastating blast zones of more than 120 facilities storing ammonium nitrate. In addition, the investigation concluded that the existence of other facilities nationwide remained a mystery due to poor information sharing.
The GAO faulted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency for decades-old chemical safety regulations that have failed in large part to cover ammonium nitrate.
Facilities that store ammonium nitrate are rarely inspected by OSHA, including the one that blew up in Texas, in part because the agency relies on EPA regulations that do not list ammonium nitrate as a hazardous material. OSHA had put in place some requirements for storing the fertilizer back in the 1970s, but prior to the Texas explosion the agency did not widely publicize them to the fertilizer industry. GAO found the industry often viewed the rules as applying only if the material were used to make explosives.
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