Friday, April 19, 2013

Another Deadly Explosion

Trey Smith

On the heels of the bombs at this week's Boston Marathon, another explosion has killed and injured over 100. This one took place in West, Texas at a fertilizer plant.
Despite being located within a short walk of a nursing home, school and residential buildings, West Fertilizer Co. in central Texas had no blast walls and had filed no contingency plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for a major explosion or fire at the site.

It remains unclear what safety measures, if any, were required of the company or whether West Fertilizer failed to comply. But on Wednesday night, the company's fertilizer complex in West, Texas - population, 2,600 - exploded with such force that 60 to 80 homes were flattened, the school and nursing home took heavy damage and at least 14 people were killed, authorities said.

In a 2011 filing with the EPA, the operators of West Fertilizer told regulators that a typical emergency scenario at the facility that holds anhydrous ammonia could result in a 10-minute release of the substance in gas form. That chemical, used as a fertilizer, is toxic to inhale but is not considered highly flammable or explosive, and the safety plan did not envisage any blast scenario.
Not considered highly flammable? Just take a look at this Wikipedia page that outlines the number of serious disasters involving ammonium nitrate. While not all of these accidents involved explosions, a good number did. So, how could the operators of this Texas plant so easily minimize the risks?

According to an article in The Guardian,
The last visit to the plant by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which ensures workplaces are safe for America's 7 million employees, was in 1985 when it noted one serious violation and two other violations.
This is what happens when you restrict funds for needed government services. We literally have thousands of facilities across the nation that store a variety of chemical compounds and yet, due to the minimal number of OSHA regulators, they are visited only once in a blue moon. In other words, our countryside is dotted with lax safety plans and potentials for more deadly explosions!

Of course, the vast majority of these explosions and incidents won't impact the health and safety of the elite -- those who profit monetarily from not spending money on safeguards. You're not going to find a fertilizer plant next to a gated community! These sorts of plants are situated in poorer neighborhoods. For example, almost 1 in every 5 people who reside in West, Texas is below the federal poverty line!

One other comment about this tragedy. When we look at what happened in Boston, we say it was a premeditated and callous act, but we too often term what happened in West as little more than an unfortunate accident. Is that necessarily the case? The operators of this plant were storing nearly 300 tons of a volatile chemical and yet had no safety plans that dealt with a fire. While the owners most probably didn't want their plant to explode -- lost profits -- the lack of a safety plan certainly could be called callous, at least in terms of the health, safety and well-being of those who worked at or lived in close proximity.


After writing this post last night, I read Dave Lindorff's column this morning which follows much the same theme.
...the entire health and safety regulatory apparatus of the US, from the federal level to the states and right down to local government, has been effectively neutered by corporate interests, who have used everything from threats of relocating to campaign contributions and outright bribes of officials and elected representatives to buy or win the right to basically operate as unsafely as they like, free of supervision.

As a result, regulation of dangerous plants and factories in the US these days is essentially nonexistent.

That, to me, is a kind of terrorism, and it is far more dangerous to the health and safety of the American people than any foreign or domestic terrorist or terrorist organization.

Yet the bulk of the American people are focusing their fears on terrorists from abroad, or in some cases here at home, not on the corporate suites where the real evil and the real danger lies.

Until we Americans wake up and insist that our elected officials and the regulatory bureaucrats they appoint, actually act in the public interest and not in the interest of the moneyed corporate elite (booting out those that betray us), we will increasingly all pay the price as plants blow up or leak toxic gas, as oil and gas companies wantonly pollute our water tables with carcinogenic toxins, and as nuclear power plants dump isotopes into our environment, all in the interest of profits.

The real terrorists in our midst are not men with knapsacks and white baseball caps who plant homemade bombs. They are not swarthy terrorists from the Middle East. Rather, they are the mostly white men (and women) in business suits on Wall Street and Main Street who callously use their wealth to subvert the political system to their short-term advantage, causing common-sense safety and health precautions to be ignored, or getting those laws watered down or outright canceled.

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