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Column: Lone Star, No Oversight

Fertilizer Plant Explosion In West, Texas
Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

The deaths resulting from the explosion of the West, Texas fertilizer plant were preventable, making them all the more tragic. A startling degree of neglect, a dumbfounding ignorance of the possible dangers, and an unforgiveable lack of oversight combined to permanently scar a close knit community.

Ammonium nitrate ignited by a fire from unknown sources is the likely cause of the explosion. Whenever a facility holds more than 400 pounds of the substance, it is supposed to notify the Department of Homeland Security, because it is the same substance that Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing. West Fertilizer filed no such report to DHS, which was not aware of the small facilities existence until it exploded.

In 2012, West Fertilizer reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services that it had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on its premises. To put that in perspective, the truck bomb used by McVeigh to kill 165 people contained 2 tons of the substance.

The Texas agency collects that data to ensure compliance with the EPA, which then puts the information in a hazardous materials list for local fire departments and emergency planners. The volunteer fire department of West, which was devastated in the explosion, appears to have been unaware of the risk of explosion at the plant. Neither the Texas Department of State Health Services nor the EPA is mandated to share that information with DHS.

West Fertilizer was last inspected and fined by EPA in 2006 because of a complaint. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is supposed to inspect small fertilizer plants like the one in West every five years, but has not done so since. In 2006, that body noted the presence of nearby schools, but called the associated risk low.

West Fertilizer also said that there was no risk of fire or explosion in a report to EPA in 2011. In the same year, they were fined by the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Commission for a number of infractions including failure to draft a safety plan for its large containers of a different ammonia based chemical. That commission does not inspect for ammonium nitrate.

The last time that West Fertilizer was inspected by OSHA was in 1985. The plant predates the housing and schools that surrounded it, but no one even considered the risk when the local zoning commission allowed construction near the site. Infractions, neglect, and ineffective regulation are a recipe for disaster; in this case it is a wonder that it didn’t happen earlier.

The hard right political turn that Texas has taken in recent decades can be seen as an experiment in libertarian policy. Their idea is that the best government is as little government as possible, that businesses and people will take care of themselves and that lawsuits will work out the conflicts. Two lawsuits have already been filed against the owner of the plant, but a fat lot of good that will do for the people who have died.

News flash for right wingers: the best government is an effective government. OSHA, EPA and DHS are all underfunded, understaffed, and hindered by ridiculous restrictions meant to protect all the wrong interests. You can bet that the Texas bureaucracy is even worse.

This is what we get when the driving philosophy of half of our elected officials is make government so small that it could be drowned in a bath tub. How many more West Fertilizers are there in the vast expanses of red states that we call Middle America?

Column: Radicals, Fervor and Isms

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