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Texas fertilizer plant cited for safety lapses

Published on NewsOK Modified: October 10, 2013 at 4:50 pm •  Published: October 10, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Texas company that operated a fertilizer plant where a thunderous explosion in April killed 15 people is facing $118,300 in federal fines for two dozen serious safety violations, including a failure to have an emergency response plan, officials said Thursday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which had not inspected the facility since 1982, said West Fertilizer Co. committed violations that included unsafe handling and storage of two fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, a volatile chemical that investigators believe contributed to the massive blast that leveled swaths of the rural town of West, Texas, and registered as a small earthquake.

Dan Keeney, a spokesman for the West Fertilizer Co., said the company's lawyers were reviewing the citations and proposed fine. The company has 15 days to pay the fine or file an administrative appeal with OSHA. The proposed penalties could be reduced.

"Based on what they see so far, it doesn't appear that the violations that are alleged have anything to do with the accident, but they're still reviewing it," he said.

The agency issued the citations Wednesday, but due to the government shutdown, they were not disclosed until Thursday, when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced them in a conference call with reporters. The agency also cited the company for inadequately labeling storage tanks, failing to pressure-test replacement hoses and not having respiratory protection or appropriate fire extinguishers.

But West Mayor Tommy Muska said the investigation came too late.

"The damage has already been done," he said. "It's like shutting the door after the cow is already out."

Investigators have been unable to pinpoint the cause of the explosion but narrowed the possibilities to three: a problem with one of the plant's electrical systems, a battery-powered golf cart or a criminal act. They ruled out others, including a rail car on site loaded with fertilizer or someone smoking. A state criminal investigation remains open.

On Thursday, a former paramedic who was among the most vocal first responders to the blast pleaded guilty to federal charges that he collected materials for a pipe bomb. Bryce Ashley Reed, 31, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to make a destructive device and another count of attempting to obstruct justice, according to court documents. He was never linked by authorities to any criminal responsibility for the plant blast.

The April blast knocked out windows and rooftops all over the tiny town. It destroyed and damaged nearby apartments, a nursing home and two schools. Victims included 10 first responders and two others who volunteered. Debris scattered as far as two miles.

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