The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, in a letter released Tuesday, accused the Texas state fire marshal and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives of hampering its work by blocking access to key witnesses for three weeks after the massive blast — “an unprecedented and harmful delay.”
Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso wrote that the “incident site was massively and irreversibly altered under the direction of ATF personnel, who used cranes, bulldozers and other excavation apparatus in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find a single ignition source for the original fire.” …
Chemical Safety Board shut out of West probe by ATF
Waco Tribune-Herald, May 22, 2013
The chairman of a federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents says the ATF and State Fire Marshal’s Office virtually shut out his investigators from the explosion site in West and severely hampered his agency’s investigation. In a plea to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, asks the senator to help his agency obtain evidence that remains under ATF control that he contends is essential to the board’s investigation into the April 17 West explosion.
“To date, the CSB has experienced significant obstacles that potentially compromise and delay our ability to complete the ‘comprehensive investigation’ that you have rightly demanded, and that we would very much like to produce,” Moure-Eraso wrote.
Boxer, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has said she intends to conduct hearings on the West explosion, which killed 15 and injured 200 others.
“It is critical that we find out how this happened,” Boxer said in a statement last month. “We must ensure that facilities like the one in West are complying with chemical safety laws. We will look at how the laws on the books are being enforced and whether there is a need to strengthen them.”
ATF officials did not return phone messages from the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday.
Rachel Moreno, a spokeswoman from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said her office had no immediate response but was formulating a statement Tuesday evening.
In a letter to Boxer dated May 17, Moure-Eraso said the CSB sent a team of 18 investigators and other experts to West within 24 hours of the explosion. At the same time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives mobilized its national response team, which “assumed essential exclusive control of the incident site” with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Moure-Eraso said.
“These criminal investigators have exercised exclusive control of the site for a full one-month period, from April 17 until today and have altered or removed almost all relevant physical evidence at the site,” the letter said. “The ATF and SFMO consistently expressed the position that CSB was not permitted to conduct separate interviews, prepare expert analysis or author its own independent report.
“The ATF and SFMO state that because in their view this was exclusively a criminal investigation, there could be only one version of what occurred and one report.”
ATF and State Fire Marshal’s Office officials announced last week that the cause of fire that triggered the blast remains undetermined. But they said they could not rule out three possible sources — arson, electrical wiring problems or a battery-powered golf cart stored near the ammonium nitrate.
The McLennan County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Rangers also are investigating the deadly blast.
Moure-Eraso complains that during the “critical period before the accident site was completely altered,” CSB investigators were excluded from the site by ATF agents and received “only limited” access days later.
“Throughout this period, the incident site was massively and irreversibly altered under the direction of ATF personnel, who used cranes, bulldozers and other excavation apparatus in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find a single ignition source for the original fire,” he wrote.
The ATF prohibited CSB investigators from interviewing witnesses for three weeks, “an unprecedented and harmful delay,” Moure-Eraso reported. On May 7, the CSB had scheduled its first interview with a plant employee who had been interviewed multiple times by the ATF.
“As soon as the witness left his car near the CSB’s temporary office in downtown West, he was suddenly surrounded by four armed ATF and SFMO agents and taken away for further ATF interrogation at an unknown location,” he charged in the letter.
ATF and SFMO officials said last week that the investigation entailed 20,000 personnel hours and cost more than $1 million.
Hundreds of investigators from 28 agencies collected and studied debris from as far as 2.5 miles from the scene, conducted hundreds of interviews and hand-sifted 300,000 pounds of corn and sorghum, kernel by kernel, they said.
“We will leave no stone unturned to make sure that we do everything we can do to determine what caused this fire and explosion and will continue to investigate,” State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said.