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Chemical board's probe into deadly West fertilizer explosion halted by shutdown

In this aerial photo, law enforcement and rescue personnel search the damage to an apartment complex from the explosion of the West Fertilizer plant on Thursday, April 18, 2013, in West, Texas.Houston Chronicle via AP, file

A federal board’s investigation into the fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people in the Texas town of West in April has been suspended due to the government shutdown, Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said on Tuesday.

Thirty-seven of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s 41 employees have been idled after government funds went dry, effectively shutting down the entire agency, board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.

“Also frozen are investigations at refinery fires and explosions in California, Washington State, Utah and Texas, all of which have important findings for communities, businesses and for the security of our nation’s energy supply,” Moure-Eraso said.

In total, 15 pending chemical accident investigations have come to a halt as a result of the shutdown, CSB Managing Director Daniel Horowitz said in an email to NBC news on Wednesday. There are hundreds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer sites that remain in operation across the U.S., he said, many of them in close vicinity to towns and other populated areas.

“We had a team of 10 working on the West fertilizer explosion and had been planning to conduct a public hearing on Oct. 24 in Texas where new safety recommendations could be considered for ammonium nitrate,” Horowitz said.

West has not experienced any delays so far regarding Federal Emergency Management Agency funds appropriated to the town after the disaster, a city official told NBC News on Tuesday.

“Currently we are not experiencing any delay in funding,” West City Secretary Jennifer Schaffer said in an email on Tuesday. “We are working to submit project worksheets for funding. We have not been affected by the shutdown as of now.”

The April 17 explosion of the West Fertilizer Company plant gouged a 93-foot-wide crater in the earth, damaging three schools and leveling homes in the town. The devastation stretched across a 37-block swath of West, and the blast was reported to be felt as far as 80 miles away.

“If a major chemical accident were to happen in an American community tomorrow, we have no ability to respond, and I think that is true of much of the government,” Moure-Eraso said on Tuesday.

An oilfield blast injured one person at an oilfield near Gillett, Texas on Tuesday, authorities said. Horowitz said the CSB has investigated past incidents similar to the pre-dawn South Texas blast.

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In a separate incident, a natural gas pipe sparked a fire and reports of an explosion at 10:47 pm local time on Tuesday in rural Oklahoma, emergency officials in Harper County said. No injuries were reported, but four homes were evacuated in the isolated area and Highway 283 was temporarily closed, said Conyetta Lehenbauer, the county’s emergency management director.

The fire was “just a flicker” and would be the subject of an investigation, said Northern Natural Gas spokesman Mike Loeffler.

Pipeline explosions are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, Horowitz said. The NTSB did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Aug. 1 that created a working group to organize federal agencies to develop higher standards for the storage, manufacturing, and transportation of chemical.

Some of the industry practices that were the case at West, such as storing ammonium nitrate in wooden bins, remains common across the U.S., Horowitz said. The CSB was collecting data on the number and locations of these sites when the shutdown went into effect, he said.

“The disaster I personally saw in West – the obliteration of homes, schools, and businesses by an ammonium nitrate explosion – was almost beyond imagination,” Moure-Eraso said in testimony before the Senate environment and public works committee on June 27. “The loss of life was horrible.”

In addition to the cutbacks at the CSB, 93 percent of Environmental Protection Agency employees have been furloughed, Boxer, the California Democrat, said on Tuesday.

“The American people deserve the peace of mind to know that the air is clean and the water is safe and the places that our children play will not cause them harm,” Boxer said in a statement. “The longer the shutdown continues, the greater the damage will be. There is a simple solution – we need to end the shutdown and open the government now.”

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