by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 2, 2013
THE WEST EXPLOSION: A DISASTER THAT DIDN'T HAVE TO HAPPEN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It had the misfortune of being overshadowed by the Boston Marathon bombing, but before it disappears down the memory hole, it's worth revisiting the April 17 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, injured about 200, and destroyed a middle school, a nursing home, an apartment building and about 100 homes.
The explosion registered 2.1 on the Richter scale, equivalent to a small earthquake. It blasted through the plant's three-foot-thick concrete foundation and left a crater 10 feet deep and 90 feet wide.
The West Explosion is worth revisiting because it can serve as Exhibit A of what happens when government oversight is removed and businesses are free to cut corners and compromise worker, and public, safety for bigger profits.
The West Fertilizer Co., located in a small town in the remote regions of te state near Waco, Tex., apparently was last inspected by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985.
Labor reporter Mike Elk, writing for In These Times, found that there are only 2,218 state and federal inspectors to cover 7.5 million workplaces that employ more than 130 million workers. That means there's only one inspector for every 58,000 workers -- so few inspectors that OSHA would be able to inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years.
And since Texas doesn't have a state-level version of OSHA, it's up to the feds to protect workers from unsafe conditions.
The operators of the plant apparently didn't bother to notify the Department of Homeland Security that it was storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that fertilizer plants can have on hand before they are subject to DHS scrutiny.
Reuters reports that firms are supposed to self-report the amount of ammonium nitrate - a prime ingredient for bomb-making, like Timothy McVeigh's truck bomb in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people in 1995 - and other volatile chemicals to DHS, so the agency can help them develop security and safety plans for them.
But, like OSHA, DHS hasn't got enough inspectors to check up on possible violations. DHS didn't even know there was a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, let alone 54,000 pounds of ammonia nitrate, until it blew up.
Another federal agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, is supposed to serve as a back-up for OSHA and other regulators. But, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the board has a $10 million annual budget and virtually no resources to investigate safety violations.
Perhaps if there were inspectors on the case, they might have found that the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or blast walls, legally required safeguards that could have prevented the catastrophic damage the blast caused.
There are about 6,000 fertilizer plants and storage depots in farming states around the country. Many are located in places that don't have zoning regulations, such as West, so they sit right next to schools and apartment buildings. Yet any attempt to regulate these plants on the federal level gets turned aside in Congress, thanks to the power of the lobbyists for the chemical industry.
What happened in West was not an anomaly. Americans are more likely to be killed at their workplace than killed by a terrorist. In 2011, 4,609 Americans were killed in workplace accidents. By comparison, 17 Americans were killed by terrorists worldwide. In contrast, 4,488 men and women died in the 10 years of the Second Iraq War,
And Texas is a particularly dangerous place to be a worker, with the nation's highest death rate for industrial accidents. Yet Gov. Rick Perry and his administration says it is satisfied with the level of regulation and oversight on the state's chemical plants.
Workplace safety is not a particularly sexy topic. According to Elk, only 0.3 percent of all news stories aired collectively by ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC in 2008, 2009 and 2011 covered the subject. And that's the way big business likes it. Without public scrutiny from the press, the unscrupulous believe they literally get away with murder.
Before the next big industrial accident, Congress needs to increase appropriations for OSHA and other regulatory agencies. Given the deficit mania in the current Congress and the outright hostility by conservatives toward government doing anything in the public interest, this is not likely.
So, failing that, it's time for workers at dangerous plants, and the people who live near them, to be empowered to ensure that companies act with accountability and responsibility. To do this, there need to be better protection for whistleblowers who report unsafe conditions - that is a necessity.
It's not too much to ask to have your employer take the steps needed to keep you from getting killed on the job, or to prevent a fertilizer plant from turning into a bomb. But until workplace safety is held in as much esteem by the owners as the steady increase of profit margins, standards will be ignored, inspectors will be hamstrung, oversight will be non-existent, and people will continue to needlessly die.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.