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Investigation Into West, Texas Explosion Stopped Due to Shutdown

The government shutdown has halted the federal investigation into the West Fertilizer Plant explosion. The explosion in April killed 15 people and injured hundreds of others.

“Some of the brightest scientists in the world are home today rather than doing their work to protect, and give us information so that we can have the right rules and regulations to protect our environment,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, said during a press conference yesterday. “The monitoring and enforcement is not being done as it should be done.” Cardin chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife.

The ranks of furloughed workers includes most employees on the Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial accidents such as the West Fertilizer Plant explosion.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee. She says 37 of the Chemical Safety Board’s 41 employees are not able to work.

“If any explosions at industrial facilities happen during the shutdown, they won’t be investigated. And it also means that ongoing investigations have stopped,” Boxer said yesterday.

West Mayor Tommy Muska says the investigation into the plant explosion is no longer happening locally. The fertilizer plant site has been cleared. But he tells KUT News he's been waiting for a final answer as to what started the fire that sparked the explosion.

"There's nothing we can obviously do about the Washington issue, but I would love for them to come up with a definitive answer as to what caused that explosion," Muska says. "Now, how long that takes, I don't know. They've had six months to work on it, I would think that would probably be long enough. And they may never be able to come up with a definitive answer to that question."

Muska agrees an answer could help provide closure for the community. But, he says, the town is pursuing that closure in other ways right now.

"People are moving forward in this town. We've got 150 building permits and we've got about 30 new homes being built right now in zone 3," Muska says. Zone 3 was the area closest to the explosion. Homes there saw the most damage.

Sen. Boxer told The Dallas Morning News that the shutdown is also delaying federal agencies from developing proposals to prevent explosions like the one in West. Pres. Barack Obama ordered the recommendations in August, with the first deadline for improvement suggestions due on Nov. 1. Now, it seems that deadline is unlikely to be reached.

The recommendations were to include tightening regulations on the use of ammonium nitrate in fertilizer plants across the country.

"I think if they could start moving forward with some type of regulation as far as sprinkler systems in these old fertilizer plants, I think that would be a big, positive step," Muska says. "But, of course, they can't do that until they open back up … But I have confidence that they'll get together eventually and work this stuff out. I hope they do – and it's their jobs to get this stuff worked out and moved forward."

Muska says his work withFEMA on addressing infrastructure problems has continued through the shutdown and he's optimistic about the future.

"A lot of new homes are being built, a lot of houses are being restored and moved back into. I moved into my house two weeks ago," Muska says. "The neighborhood is coming back. It's just slow. But we're moving and very positive about it."

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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