West, Texas, Explosion Unearths Lots of Questions With Few Answers
Nearly a month after a fertilizer company exploded in West, Texas, shockwaves of uncertainty surrounding the blast continue to reverberate—and the results of an exhaustive investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has done little to quell them.
After a $1 million investigation that included more than 500 interviews, the ATF said Thursday that it could not rule out or confirm arson as a culprit in the explosion, according to Reuters. Other possible causes include the building’s electrical system and a potentially faulty golf cart.
“At this time, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and ATF are ruling the cause of the fire as undetermined,” the Washingon Post quoted State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy as saying.
The ruling joins a long list of facts about the April 17 blast that are still undetermined, including whether or not paramedic Bryce Reed was involved. Reed, who responded to incident and eulogized at least one of the 10 responders killed fighting the fire, was arrested last week for allegedly possessing parts of a pipe bomb. Reed pleaded not guilty to the charges and denies having anything to do with the explosion, according to Reuters.
"We continue to ask our community to reserve judgment until the facts and evidence are known," Reed’s attorney Jonathan Sibley told Reuters.
Authorities have said they won’t yet speculate if Reed played a part in the blast, but they do know more about the actual explosion, which they posited was caused by something “impacting” a bin of ammonium nitrate that had become unstable in the heat of a fire. The result was a blast equal to 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, the explosion has dislodged a bevy of broad concerns ranging from possible lapses emergency planning to the lax regulatory climate of Texas to the need for stronger chemical plant security nationwide. The company, too, has come under scrutiny for frequent thefts of chemicals and remaining “willfully off the grid” when it came to reporting explosive fertilizer to federal agencies.
“This shows that the enforcement routine has to be more robust, on local, state and federal levels,” chemical standard safety expert, Sam Mannan, of Texas A&M University told Reuters. “If information is not shared with agencies, which appears to have happened here, then the regulations won't work.”
Fueling a Tragedy: Eight people were killed and 38 homes destroyed when a huge explosion ripped through a San Bruno, Calif., subdivision in September 2010. The explosion was caused when a weakened 1950s-era pipe under the neighborhood became flooded with gas from improperly opened valves.
Pacific Gas & Electric was unable to shut off fuel to the line, which eventually burst, releasing enough gas to power 12,000 homes for a year, according to the Los Angeles Times. A National Transportation Safety Board report released the following year cited deteriorating infrastructure, lax oversight, and non-existent emergency planning among a “litany of failures” that contributed to the explosion.
Pressing on the Gas (Company): The Consumer Safety and Protection Division of the California Public Utilities Commission last week recommended that PG&E be penalized a record $2.25 billion for its part in the explosion. The hefty penalty would be the largest ever levied by a state regulatory agency, according to the Los Angeles Times.
While the amount is staggering, it’s actually adjusted down from the fines regulators could have imposed. The CPSD investigation uncovered more than a hundred violations stretching back for multiple years.
“Imposing a fine for each violation for each ongoing day would result in tens of billions of dollars of fines, which is more than PG&E's net worth,” the investigation report states. “CPSD recognizes that there is a limit on how much PG&E can afford to pay, because PG&E needs… to be able to pay for its improvements in the safety of its facilities, as well as to procure natural gas and electric power.”
If approved, CPSD Director Jack Hagen stated that he would recommend “every penny” of the penalty be spent on making the PG&E system safer.
Running on Empty: PG&E has indicated that it thinks the potential sanctions are too onerous and will damage its ability to draw investors. The company has said that it will file a counterproposal with the Public Utilities Commission later this month, according to KGO-TV in San Francisco.
A statement released by company CEO Tony Earley also notes that the CPSD recommendation doesn’t reflect the $1.4 billion in shareholder-funded improvements already completed by the company since the explosion. PG&E also paid the City of San Bruno a $70 million settlement earlier this year.
“The company has already paid a very heavy price and I think numbers like you mentioned are just unrealistic,” Early told KGO-TV. “I don't have that money sitting in the bank. I've got to go out and raise that money from shareholders who're willing to invest in the company and future.”
The Public Utilities Commission will reply to recommendations by May 24 and make a decision in the matter by late summer, according to its statement.
The latest issue of the Natural Hazards Informer is now available on line. Issue 5, Communities of Practice and Disaster Risk Reduction, builds on real experiences in disaster risk management and reflects the authors’ longstanding interest in promoting DRM in the Latin American and Caribbean region.
Communities of Practice and Disaster Risk Reduction outlines strategic themes, stakeholders, and non-conventional mechanisms for implementing DRM projects at a regional scale, as well as at the national level in Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Perú, and Venezuela. The publication is also available in Spanish.
The Informer series summarizes current knowledge about various aspects of natural hazards research and policy. For more information about the series and to view past issues, visit the Informer page on the Natural Hazards Center Web Site.
As Co-Director of the Natural Hazards Center, Mary Fran Myers inspired and supported many researchers to do excellent work on gender issues and reducing disaster losses. Myers passed away in 2004, but the Mary Fran Myers Scholarship continues to honor those who share her vision.
The scholarship selection committee chose three recipients to receive the 2013 Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding individuals who share Myers' passion for disaster loss reduction nationally and internationally. The Scholarship provides financial support to recipients who otherwise could not attend the Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop.
Mara Benadusi is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Catania and teaches in the Anthropology PhD program at the University of Messina. Benadusi’s work focuses on the educational aspect of disaster response, including how individuals and social groups learn to protect themselves in disasters. Her research deals heavily with vulnerability and resilience, especially the analysis of experiences of “community-based” disaster management and disaster risk reduction.
Hari Krishna Nibanupudi works with International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu where he specializes in disaster risk reduction and community resilience. He has previously worked with the World Bank Institute and Oxfam America. Nibanupudi is an active promoter of gender equal approaches in the programs and work culture of ICIMOD. He has been a member of the group’s gender source team and was nominated for the ICIMOD Gender Champion award.
Barbara Ryan is the founder and director of Emergency Media and Public Affairs, a membership organization of disaster communicators. The volunteer professionals are trained annually and can be called in whenever disaster strikes. For example, the team was deployed during the disastrous 2011 flash floods in Queensland with a focus on recovery communication. A former journalist with 25 years in the communication field, Ryan is currently completing a PhD at the University of South Australia on the topic of how people get information during disasters.
For full bios of the 2013 and past Mary Fran Myers Scholarship Winners, please visit the Natural Hazards Center Web site.
Call for Participation
Virtual Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction
UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction
Deadline: May 22, 2013
The UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction will hold two virtual discussions allowing stakeholders to express their views on the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction (HFA2). Discussion topics and views will be summarized and shared at the Global Platform For Disaster Risk Reduction held this month in Geneva, Switzerland. The two discussions will take place online between May 17 and May 22 and May 21 and 22. For more information on agendas, HFA2, and how to participate, visit the Virtual Platform Web page.
Call for Comments
Report to Congress on Natural Catastrophes and Insurance
Federal Insurance Office
Deadline: June 24, 2013
The Federal Insurance Office of the U.S. Treasury Department is inviting comments on the current state of the natural catastrophe insurance market as required by the recent Biggert-Waters Act, which made changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. The Office specifically seeks comments regarding insurance affordability and availability, state and local mitigation capacity, the effects of land use policies on natural hazard impacts, insurer mitigation incentive offerings, and other related topics. To learn more about the planned report and submit your comments, visit the Federal Register notice.
Call for Papers
International Smoke Symposium
International Association of Wildland Fire
Deadline: July 1, 2013
The International Association of Wildland Fire is accepting papers for presentation at its International Smoke Symposium to be held October 21-14 in Adelphi, Maryland. Oral and poster presentations on topics related to smoke emissions, fire, air quality modeling and similar topics will be considered. For more information and submission forms, visit the symposium Web site.
Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2013
It’s possible that the world’s nations have been underestimating direct losses caused by disasters by as much as 50 percent, according to this report, released by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Wednesday. The report is based on new datasets that include the disaster loss databases of 40 countries, along with information provided by emergency professionals and the private sector. The report analyzes three investment sectors—urban development, agribusiness, and coastal tourism—and concludes business models in each sector drive disaster risk, according to a UN statement.
Hurricane Sandy Champions of Change
For a glimpse into what it was like on the ground in the days and months following Hurricane Sandy, take a gander at the White House Champions of Change awards honoring those who have made achievements during response and recovery from the superstorm that struck the East Coast in October. From volunteers to emergency professionals, the champions’ stories tell the tale of what just one person can accomplish when motivated.
If kids knew what was lurking in flood waters, they wouldn’t even be tempted to play in them, right? Now a game created by Australia’s Victoria State Emergency Service can show kids exactly what they’re swimming with. From dirty nappies to dead rats, kids are challenged to find the dangers hiding under the water where they might otherwise want to wade.
National Planning Frameworks
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has just released three new planning frameworks as part of its comprehensive National Preparedness Goal. The new frameworks—addressing prevention, mitigation, and response—outline the roles and responsibilities of communities in national preparedness and suggest ways in which stakeholders can share information on risks, needs, and capabilities in disasters. The frameworks represent three of the five mission areas outlined in Presidential Policy Directive-8. The National Recovery Framework was released in September. The National Protection Framework is expected soon.
C40 Cities Initiative to Prepare for Severe Weather and Natural Disasters
Cities around the globe will soon have a new tool to help assess their climate risks and make sound decisions about how to invest in preparedness actions. C40 Cities, a network of cities attempting to lower greenhouse gas emissions, announced the initiative last week. The framework is an effort to create a global standard that cities can use to better measure and manage risk on a local scale.
[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/conferences.html.]
June 17-19, 2013
22nd Annual Conference of the Society for Risk Analysis
Society for Risk Analysis Europe
Cost and Registration: $879, open until filled
This conference will discuss societal risks from natural and industrial hazards, malicious attacks, financial breakdown, and epidemics. Topics include risk regulation and communication, stakeholder involvement, vulnerability and resilience in complex systems, organizational resilience, natural and technological hazard risk analysis, health and security threats, and complex decision making.
July 2-5, 2013
Geographic Information Forum 2013
University of Salzburg
Cost and Registration: $379 before May 25, open until filled
This forum will present GIS research with a focus on technology transfer. Topics include landslide susceptibility mapping, spatial modeling of climatic water balance indices, heat-related mortality in micro-urban heat islands, evacuating tsunami inundation zones, identifying and collecting geographical information with smartphones, and crime and hurricanes in Louisiana.
August 21-23, 2013
International Conference on Biodefense and Natural Disasters
Cost and Registration: $799 before May 29, open until filled
This conference will present new research in biological and environmental science. Topics include biological weapons, nuclear disasters, biodefense and emerging infectious diseases, applied biodefense research and technology, environmental hazards and natural disasters management, and catastrophic modeling.
August 27-29, 2013
Fourth International Conference on Risk Analysis and Crisis Response
Society for Risk Analysis and Istanbul Technical University
Cost and Registration: $551, open until filled
This conference will discuss decision making systems for risk analysis and crisis response. Topics include natural disasters and catastrophic accidents, public health, threats to social safety, debt crisis, terrorism, emergency risk, food safety, critical infrastructure protection, and experimental riskology.
August 27-31, 2013
International Conference on Geomorphology
International Association of Geomorphologists
Cost and Registration: $695, open until filled
This conference will present new research on landforms and the processes that shape them. Topics include human impacts on landscapes, geomorphic hazards, risk management and climate change, landslide risk assessment methods, mountain geomorphology, extreme events, and an assessment of volcanic landforms, processes, and hazards.
September 2-5, 2013
Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council and Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre
Cost and Registration: $1,495 before June 28, open until filled
This conference will promote partnerships that result in long-term community resilience. Topics include large-scale flood management through community engagement, maintaining effective teamwork during large-scale events, identifying under-prepared residents in the wildland urban interface, long-term and ongoing impacts of disasters, and the changing future of emergency management.
Water Management Specialist
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Salary: $45,814 to $58,240
Closing Date: May 29, 2013
This position is responsible for the protection of the public trust and public rights in Wisconsin’s navigable waters. Duties include conducting shore, land, and floodplain zoning and administrating Wisconsin’s wetland protection programs in accordance with state laws and the federal Clean Water Act. Knowledge of biology, ecology and hydrology principles, experience with floodplain mapping software, and water quality management skills are required.
Postdoctoral Fellowship in Theological Responses to Disaster-Related Traumas
University of Copenhagen
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: June 1, 2013
This position will research psychological and theological models of disaster-related trauma care. Responsibilities include helping to establish an interdisciplinary research project entitled “Changing Disasters.” A PhD in theology or psychology-related field and knowledge of theories for understanding and analyzing disaster-related trauma are required.
Emergency Management Specialist II
Montgomery County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Office
Salary: $59,345 to $98,513
Closing Date: June 6, 2013
This position will develop and implement emergency operations, mitigation, and continuity of operations plans. Responsibilities include overseeing and managing response efforts, planning and evaluating response and recovery training, exercises, and drills, coordinating with local, state, and federal agencies, and developing regional response plans. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management or public administration and at least five years of emergency management experience is required.
Human Dimensions Program Director
The Water Institute of the Gulf
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will develop programs focusing on the societal dimensions of coastal change and adaptation and help initiate coastal protection and restoration projects that incorporate those elements. Responsibilities include developing relationships with organizations dealing with coastal change vulnerability, obtaining funding for projects, and conducting research. Research and applications experience in a relevant discipline is required. A PhD in sociology, economics, geography, planning, or a related area is preferred.
Associate Director of Safety and Health
Los Angeles, California
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position leads emergency preparedness and response programs for the Los Angeles production center and ESPN events in the West. Responsibilities include coordinating disaster preparedness training and emergency evacuation drills, developing policies to address occupational safety issues, and administrating fire prevention and emergency evacuation programs. A bachelor’s degree in environmental health and safety and expertise in building and environmental regulations are required. Risk management, engineering, or safety professional certification is preferred.
Wildland Urban Interface Specialist I
Texas A&M Forest Service
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will coordinate with municipal, county, and federal agencies to help institute wildland fire mitigation and preparedness programs. Responsibilities include providing wildfire technical assistance to communities, encouraging fire department participation in prevention and mitigation programs, delivering fire prevention presentations, and providing training to volunteer and career fire departments. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management or fire administration is required. Please reference NOV number 06908 when accessing the job posting.
Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.To subscribe, visit http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/dr/ or e-mail email@example.com.