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A Texas Whistleblower Could Have Saved Lives

On April 17, 2013, the West Fertilizer plant, owned by Adair Grain, Inc., exploded, killing at least 14 and injuring hundreds more. Although months have passed since the explosion, many questions remain. The plant contained approximately 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, a chemical substance used to make ammonium nitrate, the same explosive material used by Timothy McVeigh during the Oklahoma City bombings. Could a whistleblower to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which last inspected the plant in 1985, have stopped the explosion?

What could have been reported by a whistleblower?

Whistleblowing includes instances where an employee reports violations by their employer to law enforcement.  A whistleblower could have possibly reported the following and prevented the catastrophic explosion at the fertilizer plant located near Waco, Texas:

  • The last time OSHA inspected the plant was approximately 27 years ago in 1985.
    • Adair sent a document to Texas certifying that the facility stored 270 tons of anhydrous ammonia.
    • The plant contained 1,350 times the amount of explosive material that would normally trigger oversight by the Department of Homeland Security.
    • After plant neighbors complained of bad odor, The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) visited the plant and issued a fine.  The last TCEQ visit to the West Fertilizer plant was in 2007.
    • In 2012, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined Adair $10,000 for failure to have an adequate security plan for transporting hazardous materials. The fine was later reduced by almost 50%.
    • Texas’ Office of the State Chemist, which inspects the blending, labeling and purity of chemical materials, visited the West Fertilizer plant ten days before the deadly explosion and did not notice anything amiss.

 

A choice of whistleblower laws

While the Texas Whistleblower Act would not have been applicable, because it only provides legal rights to public employees who report violations of their employing agency and Adair is a private company, OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program could have provided a safe legal haven.

OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program enforces the whistleblower provision via more than twenty federal statutes that protect employees who report violations of various workplace safety and environmental laws. OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program protects employees from retaliatory acts such as firing, demotion, intimidation and hour reductions. Reports of violations must be filed with OSHA.

If you have any information on workplace violations that you believe need to be reported, it may be helpful to consult with a Texas whistleblower attorney who understands the laws and how they may protect you.

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