By M.B. Pell
(Reuters) - A dispute between government agencies over the investigation into the deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant intensified on Thursday when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives hit back after being criticized by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB).
The board's allegations that its investigation into the causes of the April 17 tragedy was hindered by the ATF or the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office is a misrepresentation of what actually occurred, the ATF said.
The CSB was not barred by the ATF from the explosion scene in the town of West, and the ATF did not destroy evidence, as CSB officials suggested, said Rich Marianos, assistant director of the ATF's office of public and governmental affairs.
Earlier in the week, the CSB said the ATF and the State Fire Marshal's Office were preventing the CSB from discovering what caused the explosion that killed 14 people. The Texas agency shot back the next day, accusing the CSB of not being a team player and reminding the CSB that the fire marshal's criminal investigation takes priority over all other probes.
"For them to inaccurately report the facts that transpired is extremely disappointing and disrespectful," the ATF's Marianos said. "We believe the unified command structure and all the investigators did an extremely professional job."
At its heart, the dispute pivots on the friction that can be created when an agency charged with finding the cause of an explosion needs to work alongside investigators pursuing possible criminal wrong-doing.
The CSB is an independent federal agency responsible for investigating industrial-chemical accidents. The ATF is a criminal investigative federal agency under the Department of Justice.
The dispute is hardly unique. For decades various federal and state agencies have competed with each other for supremacy over the investigations into transportation and industrial disasters.
When a Boeing 747 exploded over the Atlantic in 1996 after taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, the FBI denied National Transportation Safety Board investigators access to key witnesses, said Jim Hall, who was chairman of the NTSB at the time. The FBI considered the crash a possible crime.
"It was the definitive head butting with the FBI," Hall said. "We had a little head butting previously."
Hall said he and then FBI Director Louis Freeh sat down and worked out a set of investigative procedures that prevented future conflicts. They did not take their dispute public.
But in the case of the Texas explosion, accusations are flying from Washington to the small farming town of West.
The State Fire Marshal's Office released a statement Wednesday saying the CSB refused to join an agreement that 30 other state and federal agencies investigating the West explosion all agreed to.
Officials at the Fire Marshal's Office did not return calls over the past three days to answer additional questions.
Daniel Horowitz, the CSB's managing director, said his agency could not accept the terms of the agreement because it prohibited the CSB from releasing an independent report detailing the cause of the accident.
Additionally, witnesses are more likely to talk to CSB investigators, who are prohibited from pursuing a criminal investigation, unlike the ATF, Horowitz told Reuters on Thursday by telephone.
The State Fire Marshal's Office said that while its criminal investigation takes precedence over all other investigations, the CSB was not denied access to the scene or to witnesses.
CURSORY ACCESS ALLEGED
Horowitz said access was little more than an hour-long "ceremonial" tour of the site.
"This was not comparable to in-depth site access and evidence collection for our investigators and experts, which would be a multi-week or month process," he said.
CSB could have had access to the investigative materials put together by the joint investigative team, including the ATF and CSB, ATF's Mariano said.
The ATF investigators assigned to West are among the most experienced in the world, and have investigated hundreds of explosions, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996, Marianos said. Even though the CSB disagreed with some techniques, like the ATF's use of heavy equipment, Mariano said the investigation was methodical.
"The ATF is correct," said U.S. Representative Bill Flores, of Texas. "I don't know what the deal is with the CSB."
CSB is the only agency involved that has not played with the rest of the team, Flores said.
"I would like for the CSB to adjust its request so it can work with everyone else," he said. "Why does the CSB have to have their own interviews?"
The investigative approach of an independent agency like the CSB and the NTSB are different than criminal investigators, Hall said.
But investigative agencies should never be in a position where they are stepping on one another, he said.
"They've got to sit down and work this out," Hall said.
(Reporting by M.B. Pell in New York; Editing by Martin Howell and Tim Dobbyn)