The more I look at this industrial disaster in the small town of West, Texas, the more I'm reminded of just how vacuous and downright perverse the right wing Republican concepts of deregulation and "free markets" are. If you haven't been paying attention to this, you should, because it demonstrates just how far private companies will go to avoid regulation, how far GOP politicians in red states will go to "protect" those companies, and how hypocritical they are when it comes to their attitudes with regard to government spending.
If you think "it can't happen here," think again. The right wing mindset has weakened the protections we've created, to the point that the agencies we depend on to keep businesses honest are weaker than ever.
Because there were no real protections in place to stop them, West Fertilizer was able to place two 12,000 gallon tanks of anhydrous ammonia onto their property, which was located near the center of the small town of West, Texas, population 2,800. They were about 1,500 feet from a school, a nursing home with 130 residents and a hospital, and practically in the middle of a residential district. They were only 3,000 feet from another school, and very close to a heavily travelled highway.
We know OSHA discovered the plant in 1985, because that was when they last visited it, after workers reported the strong smell of ammonia. Yet, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) apparently didn't realize the plant existed until June of 2006, when they cited the company for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit. The logical question, of course, is, how long did the company operate the storage tanks without a permit? The short answer is, no one knows for sure. According to many sources, the plant had been making fertilizer since the mid-1960s, but we know for sure that they had been storing ammonia for more than 20 years. How did the state of Texas fail to notice? How does a company move two 12,000 gallon tanks onto a property, and fill them with ammonia without anyone noticing, especially since there are laws on the books requiring a permit for such a thing?
In September 2006, the EPA also finally noticed the plant, when someone in the neighborhood complained of a lingering strong ammonia odor. They inspected the plant, and fined West Fertilizer $2,300 for failing to create and maintain a risk management plan that met proper federal standards.
By the end of 2006, the company had submitted a qualified plan to the EPA, and they also received a permit from the state of Texas to operate a plant they'd been operating for decades, anyway. No harm, no foul, right?
The EPA-compliant assessment plan the company submitted included a promise to inspect the ammonia tanks for leaks at least once a day, and to comply with all EPA safety procedures when transferring ammonia into and out of the storage tanks. The company also agreed to limit the ammonia in the tanks to 85% of capacity to reduce vapor pressures that could cause the ammonia to leak or explode. The company also assured them that it had a water spray system in place that would protect the community in case of an ammonia leak. The only condition for the permit was to build a wall around the tanks that would minimize the possibility of a car leaving the highway and crashing into them.
Of course, the company also lied on forms they filed with the EPA, when they told the agency there was no risk of fire at the plant, and the worst case scenario would be a "10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one." Yeah, that's right. The company swore the plant could never catch fire.
It also turns out West Fertilizer was storing about 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on the property at one point in 2012. Ammonium nitrate is VERY explosive – so explosive that it was used for making bombs during World War II, and Timothy McVeigh used it to bring down the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. It's so dangerous, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires that more than 400 pounds must be reported. That's a limit of 400 POUNDS; West Fertilizer was storing 270 TONS. That's roughly 350,000% of the allowable amount, and no one bothered to report it. We know they had this because of filings the company made with the Texas Department of State Health Services. Again, no one reported it to DHS.
One would think the state of Texas would take this kind of thing a little more seriously, given the state's notoriety for having hosted the worst industrial disaster in US history. That occurred on April 16, 1947. A French cargo ship, the SS Grandcamp, which was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, caught fire as it was docked at the Port of Texas City. That fire led to a massive explosion that destroyed about 1,000 buildings, as well as all of Texas City's firefighting equipment. That latter detail became important because, about 16 hours after the first explosion, a second ship carrying ammonium nitrate blew up and left the city helpless. In all, that industrial accident caused the deaths of 576 people and injured more than 1,000.
The West Fertilizer explosion was less devastating than that one, but it was devastating nonetheless. So far, 15 people are dead, and up to 200 have been injured. In addition, a yet-to-be-determined number of homes and businesses have been badly damaged. It's been a week since the explosion, and many families are still being kept away from their homes, because the situation is still too dangerous. Utility workers are working overtime to turn power back on, and the water quality in town is bad enough that those remaining in town can shower and do laundry, but they're being advised not to drink it.
What led to an explosion so powerful that it led to a crater that was 10 feet deep and 93 feet wide in the virtual center of a quiet small town was benign neglect for many years on the parts of the federal and, especially, state governments. But more than that, it's a product of the right wing mindset that's taken over many governments, in which we can't do anything that might inconvenience a company because they might not make tons of money and throw everyone a few crumbs in gratitude.
Left to their own devices, most companies will be good citizens and not do things that hurt their communities. But there is a large subset of companies who only care about profit, who don't care how they make it, and who don't care about the rules. And the bastardized concept of "free market" that the right wingers who dominate the current Republican Party believe in is more than happy to help them, by removing all "barriers" to maximizing profits, which means "deregulation."
We run the government, folks. And we use it for our own devices. It's their job to keep us safe, because they're in a better position to do so, and because we hire them to do so. There are no more excuses. We have to be tired of this. More and more, we are being put at risk by state and federal agencies that aren't doing their jobs, mostly because the Republican Party keeps cutting and cutting and making them increasingly ineffective.
The current GOP's most important meme – the one they use to hook the right wing "base" is that "government doesn't work." And they have been trying to prove themselves correct for 32 years. And what that gets us is a lot more natural and industrial disasters. We save a few bucks in the short run, but pay dearly in the long run.
Enough. It's not too much to ask that government protect us from corporate excess. Forget their profits; the lives of average Americans are far more important. Period.
It turns out the West Fertilizer explosion could ed up costing upwards of $100 million, all because Republicans refuse to make sure businesses are responsible for their behavior, and because they refuse to take their constitutional mandate to regulate seriously. And because the GOP refuses to make businesses pay their own way, guess what?
This tragedy will cost $100 million, and West Fertilizer was insured for a whopping $1 million. That's right; they have eough insurance to cover 1% of the costs of a tragedy that quite possibly could have been prevented.
Republicans are always on about personal responsibility. But what about corporate responsibility. A friend I know owns a bowling alley that carries more than $1 million in insurance; how is it possible that a company that stored the types of chemicals and explosives that West only carried $1 million in insurance?
And FYI, the state of Texas has virtually no regulations on fertilizer companies, nor are most such companies required by the state of Texas to carry insurance at all. That is what the GOP deregulation frenzy gets you, folks. YOU have to carry insurance to show financial responsibility for the damage your car might do, but companies that keep tons of explosives on their property don't need insurance.
Why should they? The federal govenment and the state of Texas will bail them out, right?