Sunlight Foundation

In years before Waco explosion, fertilizer trade groups lobbied for lax oversight

Photo source: istockphoto

The tragic explosion north of Waco, Texas, was preceded by years of lax oversight. As Reported by Bloomberg, OSHA had not inspected Adair Grain’s West Fertilizer Company facility since 1985. Mark Drajem and Jack Kaskey also reported that when other agencies—including the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency—did swing by, they found violations and issued thousands of dollars in fines. With a dubious track record, how did the Texas plant avoid regulation?

Part of the blame rests with Congress and the special interests that target it. Consider the Agricultural Retailers Association, a trade group whose members include suppliers of pesticides and fertilizers, and the Fertilizer Institute, which bills itself as the voice of the fertilizer industry. Since 1998, the specific issues that appear most frequently in their lobbying disclosure reports are bills dealing with the safety and security of chemical facilities. During that period, the Agricultural Retailers Association has spent a cumulative $2.9 million on lobbying while the Fertilizer Institute has spent even more, some $14.4 million, according to data in Influence Explorer.

In a lobbying disclosure on file with the Senate, the Agricultural Retailers Association clearly states its opposition to EPA regulation of fertilizer safety. The group listed, “Work with EPA to clarify their new Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act interpretation of fertilizer retailer to exclude facilities that blend fertilizer,” among its specific lobbying issues, adding that it “Oppose[d] EPA's efforts to consider agricultural retailer who custom blend fertilizer as fertilizer manufacturers for the purposes of EPCRA.” J.B. SMITH, a Reporter at the Waco Tribune-Herald, emailed Sunlight to say that West Fertilizer did file an EPCRA listing with the Texas Department of Health Services. Smith obtained a copy of the filing. 

West Fertilizer Co. was a retailer that blended fertilizer, according to a report from Reuters

The act in question, EPCRA, requires facilities to disclose the presence of toxic and dangerous chemicals to the public. It also requires state and local governments to prepare chemical emergency response plans so that they're ready in case of a leak of harmful gas or other catastrophic events. However, according to the EPA, "Hazardous chemicals used in routine agricultural operations and fertilizers held for resale by retailers are excluded."

The association also disclosed that it serves on the Department of Homeland Security Chemical Sector Coordinating Council. In its lobbying disclosures, the group reported “providing input on implementation of Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards(CFATS)” and assisting DHS with the “farm operations security rule.”

The most recent Agricultural Retailers Association disclosure noted the group and its members “Oppose Inherently Safer Technology (IST) requirement and ability for citizen suits / third party lawsuits.”

The Agricultural Retailers Association released a statement about the explosion expressing their sympathy and asserting the competence of fertilizer facilities and personnel in general.

Richard Gupton of Agricultural Retailers Association, said that Adar Grain and West Fertilizer are not members of the association. Gupton added that "We do support common sense regulations and make sure members are compliant with existing law."

The Fertilizer Institute is more vague in its most recent lobbying disclosure ; they disclosed an interest in EPA water regulations. The institute’s website features a six-page brochure on criminal misuse of fertilizer. Titled “Security Begins with WITH YOU” it urges safety planning but is mostly focused on preventing fertilizer from being intentionally made in to bombs. There are also recommended guidelines on the site for safely storing nitrates.

From Influence Explorer here are the most frequently disclosed bills for the Agricultural Retailers Association:

Bill No. Title
H.R.2477 Chemical Facility Security Authorization Act of 2009
H.R.2868 Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009
H.R. 901 Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Security Authorization Act of 2010
H.R. 908 Full Implementation of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorsim Standards Act 
H.R. 916 Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act of 2011
S. 473 Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act of 2011
S. 2996 Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act of 2010
H.R.5186 Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act of 2010
H.R. 21 Ocean Conservation, Education and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act
H.R. 872 Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011

One thing all of these bills have in common is that none of them became law.

From Influence Explorer here are the most frequently disclosed bills for the Fertilizer Institute:

Bill No. Title
H.R.901 Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Security Authorization Act of 2011
H.R.908 Full Implementation of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act
H.R.3852 Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act of 2009
S.1113 Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2011
S.1816 Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act
S.2889 Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2009
H.R.104 RAMP Act
H.R.1380 New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011
H.R.1690 MODERN Security Credentials Act
H.R.2454 American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009

Again, none of these bills became law.

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