First came the smoke. The explosion hit 20 minutes later – so massive it killed 15, injured 260, damaged or destroyed 150 buildings, shattered glass a mile out and set trees ablaze. Under stadium lights, the West, Texas, high school football field, home of the Trojans, was transformed into a makeshift triage center.
The 2013 disaster in West, a town of just 2,800, began with a fire at the local fertilizer plant, highlighting safety gaps at thousands of facilities nationwide that use or store high-risk chemicals. It took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nearly four years after that to issue a rule intended to prevent such accidents – a move strenuously opposed by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute.
Just a week after the rule was issued, Donald Trump was sworn in as president.
Businesses tried again, asking for a delay of the requirements. This time, they got what they asked for.
The EPA has granted more than a few private-sector wishes lately under the guise of regulatory reform. Roughly 62 percent of the agency’s “deregulatory” actions completed in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first year and 85 percent of its planned initiatives match up with specific industry requests, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. These changes targeted requirements ranging from air-pollution limits for oil and gas operations to water-pollution restrictions on coal-fired power plants.
Many of these steps followed entreaties from a small number of powerful lobbying groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers.
The EPA, which ignored a half-dozen requests for comment, has said officials are merely reigning in an agency that they assert routinely overstepped its authority. But there is another interpretation. The analysis shows the EPA has been captured by industry, said Alexandra Teitz, a former agency attorney.
“The idea that ‘We are for environmental protection, too, we just choose to do it a different way’ might be plausible if we’d seen anything to support that,” said Teitz, now a senior policy advisor for the Sierra Club. “But we haven’t seen them do anything positive. So, that claim is just a joke.”
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government group, said the industry successes have come while the EPA is “operating under a veil of secrecy.” The agency has failed to routinely disclose day-to-day activities it previously made public, he said.
While Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued over 14 major EPA regulations and opposed others, including the chemical-safety rule. His legal interpretations tend to align with industry desires: a 2017 New York Times investigation revealed his deep ties to companies and propensity to use their arguments as his own.
In his first six months on the job, Pruitt was scheduled to meet 31 times more often with industry than with environmental or public-health groups, according to a Center analysis last year. The EPA’s internal watchdog is investigating his official travel, including a Morocco trip during which Pruitt promoted natural-gas exports. Asked in a January CBS News interview whether the EPA’s mission is to protect the environment or business, he responded, “It’s neither.”
“Our focus here should be on stewardship,” Pruitt said, adding that “to achieve what we want to achieve in environmental protection, environmental stewardship, we need the partnership of industry.”