Texas fertilizer plants: An explosive situation


This blog would probably go out of business if governments would simply do their supposed job and regulate big business, with the simple goal of protecting the safety and long-term health of citizens. Just look at the situations I write about most frequently: The BP oil spill, Fukushima, the Louisiana sinkhole, fracking, pipeline accidents. All very different situations, but at the core it’s always the same story: A fabulously profitable corporation looking to pile up more dollars in their bank vault by cutting corners and chintzing on safety measures. And the government guardians who are supposed to clamp down on these practices do little or nothing — either because of “pro-market” political bosses awash in corporate campaign contributions, or because Tea Party ideologues have cut spending on regulatory agencies to the bone.

At least that’s the way things work until the rig explodes, or there’s a nuclear disaster, or a pipeline spill that makes a lot of folks sick. Then, when — to borrow a metaphor — all the cows have escaped, regulators usually try to go back and close the barn door.

Still, even by those lame standards, there’s an alarming situation playing out right now in the ultra-conservative, pro-“free market” state of Texas. You remember it was just in April that a fertilizer plant storing mass quantities of ammonium nitrate in the small town of West, Texas, exploded — killing 15 people, injuring another 160, and destroying many buildings in the community, which is near Waco. Nearly five months later, officials still don’t understand what exactly caused that blast. But they are racing to inspect every similar facility across the sprawling Lone Star State, eager to make sure there is not a second West, Texas-sized event.

What has happened next probably won’t surprise you if you’ve been paying close attention.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Five facilities in Texas with large quantities of the same fertilizer chemical that fueled the deadly plant explosion in West have turned away state fire marshal inspectors since the blast, investigators said Monday.

A railway operator that hauls hazardous materials across Texas was also said to have rebuffed a state request to share data since the April explosion at West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 people and injured 200 others.

Regulators and state lawmakers at a hearing about the still-unsolved explosion were intrigued by the lack of cooperation. State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said “well, sure” when asked whether those facilities refusing to admit inspectors raised concern.

“In their defense, they may have a very good reason,” Connealy said.

There is no state fire code in Texas. The state fire marshal’s office lacks the power to make unannounced inspections of local businesses, nor does the office have the authority to compel local facilities to open its doors. 

This is an alarming situation, or course, but it also points to a society where things have really gotten out of whack, where “getting government off people’s back” has reached such an extreme imbalance that officials aren’t even able to make the most basic fire safety checks. No one is asking these fertilizer plants, or that railroad (and remember the deadly rail accident we just witnessed in Quebec) to divulge trade secrets, and no want wants to hamper their ability to manufacture fertilizer, a critical agricultural product.

But if officials can’t guarantee that the most basic safety practices at these facilities, the heartbreak of a West, Texas — or a Deepwater Horizon, or a Fukushima — is going to happen again and again and again. And it won’t be solely the fault of the business owner. It will also be the fault of a society that was content to look the other way.

To read more about the refused safety inspections in Texas, please read: http://www.mbtmag.com/news/2013/08/fire-marshal-inspections-refused-west-blast

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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