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Inquiry Begins in Texas Hazardous Materials Oversight

APWestInvestigation1

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Two Texas lawmakers have launched inquiries into what oversight the state does on hazardous materials after an April 17 explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed 14 people.

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In a letter, Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston asks the Texas Environmental Quality Commission how the state can improve its oversight and suggests creating "buffer zones," the Houston Chronicle reports (http://bit.ly/183XOM1).

Ellis asks whether the commissioner would consider new fees on Texas industries to pay for increased inspections. The agency's budget was cut from $554 million in 2008 to $340 this year. Ellis also asked if the agency would agree to levy fees to cover the cost of creating buffer zones between chemical facilities and schools or residential areas.

The letter is addressed to Bryan Shaw, chairman of the TCEQ.

The West Fertilizer Co. plant where the explosion happened near a nursing home, a high school, a middle school and homes. More than 200 people were injured in the blast in West.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso has invited eight state agencies that have oversight on the plant or the explosion to testify at a hearing Wednesday. The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee chairman wants a count of Texas facilities like the West Fertilizer plant to determine if a need exists for a database of such facilities.

The agencies are the Department of Public Safety, Texas Division of Emergency Management, Emergency Management Council, the Office of the Texas State Chemist, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Department of Agriculture, Department of State Health Services and the State Fire Marshal's Office.

Pickett said the aim of the inquiries is not "finger-pointing" but rather to answer questions he and the public have. "How many of these facilities there are. Do we need to inventory them? Are there some more dangerous than others?" Pickett asked.

A TCEQ spokesman said the agency was "reviewing Sen. Ellis's letter and will prepare a timely response. Any new state, federal or local regulation must be based on determination of the cause of this tragic accident and that cause has not yet to be determined."

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com



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