Bill Knight – May 16
5:35 pm
Wed May 15, 2013

Regulatory Oversight Can Save Lives

The April explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that killed 14 people, injured about 200 others and destroyed dozens of homes was so powerful it could be felt 50 miles away, registering as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake. The blast should continue to rumble throughout the country since its owner apparently didn’t disclose the dangers there, and the government agencies responsible for protecting the area also failed.

Bill Knight
Bill Knight

The regulatory failure was explainable but not excusable. The catastrophe reveals an abdication of responsibilities by corporations and government to protect workers and communities. It seems likely that the tragedy was an accident caused by ignorance, negligence and greed.

Government agencies that oversee such operations didn’t, or couldn’t, and that’s no accident. Choices were made. Financial interests seemingly took precedence over public safety or the well-being of employees.

Penn State law professor Ellen Dannin said, “It is unlikely that the owners of the West plant intended to kill anyone. But there was, at least, gross neglect in the siting of the plant in the midst of a town."

Dannin, author of “Taking Back the Workers’ Law,” continued: “There were many other red flags that cast doubt on the integrity of this company. Those flags can be found in the way they stored the ammonium nitrate, in the construction of the building, and in their violation of federal law by failing to report the amounts of the chemical they had,” she said.

Donald Adair’s West Fertilizer has a history of violations, according to reports noting that the company “paid more than $5,000 in fines in 2012 after being cited for mislabeled cargo tanks and inadequate transport practices, and had been cited by state authorities for a lack of permit in 2006.”

In 2011, the company told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that there was no risk of fire or explosion (despite 27 Tons of toxic, flammable anhydrous ammonia there).

The EPA fined the plant in 2006, according to Dallas’ WFAA-TV, which said the facility paid a $2,300 fine then for “failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards.”

Also, Adair failed to report that it was storing 270 Tons of ammonium nitrate – 1,350 times the amount that should alert the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that it should monitor the site, according to Reuters.

The same fertilizer was used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

Where was the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)? OSHA last inspected West Fertilizer in 1985, according to Bloomberg News.

Well, OSHA is hampered by anti-regulation zealots who hamstrung its authority and cut its budget. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that OSHA needed search warrants to inspect facilities, weakening the agency. Also, lobbied by the chemical industry, Congress during the Bush administration made Risk Management Plans mandated in 1990’s Clean Air Act easier to avoid. Finally, though the worldwide trend is for “privatized regulation” where companies being examined fund the examiners, in the United States, the trend is to starve agencies. Either way, the results can be deadly.

Required to ensure that every worker has safe working conditions, OSHA is assigned to inspect workplaces and further health and safety standards. However, OSHA is woefully understaffed and underfunded. With 2,200 inspectors and more than 7 million workplaces, it would take more than 100 years for OSHA to look over each workplace, the AFL-CIO says. Compare that to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Labor journalist Mike Elk wrote, “Although Americans were 270 times more likely to die in a workplace accident than a terrorist attack in 2011, the DHS’s budget that year was $47 billion, while OSHA’s budget was only $558 million.”

Besides OSHA, EPA and Homeland Security, various state agencies should have kept track of the plant, including Texas’ Department of State Health Services, the Office of the Texas State Chemist, and the Commission on Environmental Quality.

Tom O’Connor of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health commented, “This tragic explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA. With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites can be inspected and hazards abated.”

There are businesses that are safe and profitable. But there’s also a mindset that there’s never enough profit and that maximizing income must sacrifice safety, workers’ rights and product quality.

Writing in the Progressive Populist, business consultant James Moore said, “Generations from now … people may find it hard to understand what we allowed to happen in order to hold down our tax burden and to let industry create jobs and find energy without government meddling.”  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.