Investigators may determine cause of West explosion soon

An investigation into the origin and cause of the fire and subsequent explosion in West may be completed by May 10, the state fire marshal told lawmakers Wednesday.

The West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion killed 15 people — including 12 first responders — injured more than 200 and destroyed 142 homes and several buildings, including a nursing home and two schools.

Speaking to the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy likened the ongoing investigation to an archaeological dig and said investigators — who represent 28 state and federal agencies — are working to reconstruct the cause of the explosion by examining the 14.9 acre blast radius.

“This is a very complex event as you can imagine and we want to make sure we do it correctly,” Connealy said.

The marshal said investigators have ruled out a natural event, such as a lightning strike, as the cause but three other categories of probable causes — accidental, incendiary and undetermined — are still on the table.

Connealy spoke at the first hearing regarding the explosion, where representatives from eight state agencies assessed their role in overseeing and regulating plants such as the one in West.

As of February, the plant contained 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical with explosive capabilities, said David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. He said 41 other facilities in the state also have large amounts of the chemical.

Lakey said facilities with fewer than 10,000 pounds of ammonium do not have to submit reports because the chemical is not included on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of dangerous substances.

Steve McCraw, Texas Department of Public Safety director, said about 1,100 plants in Texas store the chemical.

Officials said local fire departments are authorized to inspect these facilities. Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd said he had not directed fire departments in cities with similar plants to conduct inspections, but said he could do so upon lawmakers’ request.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairs the House committee and the hearing was intended to clarify agencies’ role in handling the aftermath of the explosion and overseeing similar plants. He said he did not intend for lawmakers to get involved in the investigation or “to point fingers.”

“I want to take it at a pace that is not a knee-jerk reaction to things,” Pickett said after the hearing.

Legislators in Washington will also examine the cause of the blast.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the committee would investigate the circumstances surrounding the explosion. Boxer sent letters to the Chemical Safety Board and Environmental Protection Agency asking how each would follow up on the situation.

"I cannot rest until we get to the bottom of what caused the disaster in West, Texas and the tragic loss of life,” Boxer said in a press release. “It is critical that we find out how this happened.”

While anti-bacterial soap can be hygienic, Student Government members want the campus to ban the soap because it contains a chemical possibly harmful to students’ health.

A possible ban on antibacterial soap containing triclosan, a chemical that can lower immune function, is being pushed by Student Government after they passed a resolution Tuesday night. In addition to weakening the immune system, the chemical triclosan can potentially harm aquatic life. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently considering banning the chemical. The University stopped using the antibacterial soap containing the chemical triclosan in restrooms on campus four years ago. However, soap containing the chemical is still used in other places on campus.

Student government representative and public affairs graduate student Robert Love said the soap is still used by the Division of Housing and Food Service, University Health Services and the School of Nursing.

“What we’re saying is we need an outright ban on campus, and we need to kind of make a bold statement,” said urban studies senior and SG representative John Lawler, who helped author the bill. “In a lot of places it’s not being banned; it’s not being considered a harmful chemical.”

Love said University officials are receptive to the potential ban.

“UT is a very progressive campus and everyone I have spoken to has been willing to look at the science and then make a decision based upon that science,” Love said.

Love said after he asked the Division of Housing and Food Service to look into the chemical’s harmful effects, they stopped buying it.

“Just a little bit of information went a long way in persuading the University about the dangers of triclosan,” Love said.

Love said the next step for the ban would be for SG President Natalie Butler and others on the executive board to advocate the bill. Love said UT would be the first university in the nation to take an official stance against triclosan in anti-bacterial soap.