Saturday, May 11, 2013

Editorial: Stop Business As Usual

West, Texas, is a pleasant small town with about 2,800 residents about 20 miles north of Waco in Central Texas. Until April 17 it was best known for the Czech heritage of the town’s settlers, celebrated every Labor Day weekend with Westfest, as well as the roadside convenience stores that sell delicious sandwiches and kolaches, a Czech pastry, to hungry travelers taking a rest stop from Interstate 35.

The evening of April 17, a catastrophic explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant killed 15 people, including 10 volunteer firefighters and emergency responders. More than 200 were injured. The blast wrecked two schools, destroyed a nursing home, an apartment building and nearly 150 homes in a 37-block blast zone and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

The fire burned for about a half-hour at the plant, which had no sprinklers or fire barriers, before the detonation of as many as 270 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the plant. Luckily, the fire occurred in the evening, so the nearby schools were empty and emergency responders managed to evacuate the nursing home, apartments and nearby houses to limit the casualties.

After the explosion, state officials rushed to the scene to express their support for the community and they pledged to pursue federal assistance, but otherwise it was business as usual.

A few days later, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) flew to Chicago April 22-23 to tout the state’s pro-business climate at a bioscience convention as he sought to lure Illinois businesses to Texas. In an $80,000 media campaign, Perry said, “I have a word of advice for employers frustrated by Illinois’ short-sighted approach to business: you need to get out while there’s still time. The escape route leads straight to Texas, where limited government, low taxes and a pro-business environment are creating more jobs than any other state.”

Then Perry objected to a cartoon by Jack Ohman published in the Sacramento Bee April 25 that showed Perry standing at a podium behind a banner extolling the state’s low taxes and low regulations, while exclaiming that “business is BOOMING in Texas.”

“It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon,” Perry wrote the Bee. “While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.” He demanded an apology from the Bee. (He didn’t get it.)

Rick Rojas of the Los Angeles Times went to West a week after the explosion and he found little outrage among citizens and officials. “Water under the bridge,” said Steve Vanek, West’s mayor pro-tem, referring to decisions that allowed homes and schools to be built near the plant.

Jean Smith, a resident whose home lost most of its roof and sustained structural damage, told the Times, “It was an accident, and accidents do happen.”

“I mind my own business, and that’s what a lot of people do around here,” said Jeanette Karlik, who writes a column for a local newspaper.

Chris Kirkham and Ben Hallman wrote at (4/22) that the plant had been ingrained in the community since it opened in 1962 to supply fertilizer to local corn, cotton and sorghum farmers. Donald Adair, a local farmer, bought the plant in 2004 because it was rumored to be on the verge of shutting down, and few locals seemed to want to criticize his role in the plant.

Mayor Pro-Tem Vanek noted that the plant had been there for decades before housing developments approached it. “It was their call to move to that area,” Vanek said of the plant’s neighbors.

Yes, but many of those residents probably believed that government officials would not allow them to live so close to the plant if it was dangerous. And the governor, predictably, sided with the business interests.

(The same can be said of residents of Mayflower, Ark., who didn’t realize that their homes were on top of an oil pipeline until March 29, when heavy crude “tar sands” oil started bubbling out of the ground and contaminated groundwater.)

Texas has no state occupational safety program, relying on the overburdened federal system for inspections. Texas leads the nation in workplace fatalities, with 433 deaths in 2011. That’s 9.4% of the nation’s total and 73 more than California, which has six million more people in its workforce but, unlike Texas, has a state occupational safety and health agency.

Texas has a voluntary workers compensation system that leaves many employees — including the seven employees of the West Fertilizer plant — without insurance after injuries. And the plant had only $1 million in liability insurance, while estimates of damages run upwards of $100 million.

“In the aftermath of the West tragedy, more than 70 state and federal agents were scouring the plant site. They suspect that the cause was not random, but most likely a failure to control known risks inside the plant,” the Times reported.

However, Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Kistner said at a news conference April 23 in West that the incident could be classified as a natural fire — an “act of God” — or as accidental, incendiary or left as undetermined.

Gov. Perry said in an April 22 interview with Bloomberg News that there hadn’t been any violations at the West plant since 2006 and that recent inspections hadn’t found any “abnormalities that would cause concern.” Calls for change are “premature” until investigations of the cause are complete, he said.

Perry also questioned whether it would be cost-effective to move plants or residential areas away from each other. West expanded out into the rural area where the fertilizer plant had operated since the 1960s, according to the governor. The plant was outside the city limits, so there were no zoning laws to stop them.

“Are the people willing to pay the cost?” Perry said in the interview. “Cost versus benefit is always what we battle with.”

Texas, in its effort to support local business and lure more companies to the state, has been reluctant to add to regulatory burdens on industry, Perry said.

“We are a state that does not believe in overburdening businesses,” Perry said.

(The governor also does not believe in accepting federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid program to give health care to the working poor because, if truth be told, neither Perry nor the Republican leadership of the state cares that one-fourth of Texas workers are not covered by health insurance. They have no plans to cooperate with the federal government to improve that dismal statistic as long as Barack Obama is President.)

If anything, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is inclined to further reduce regulations at the expense of workers and neighbors. The state House is considering a bill that would end a TCEQ program that grades businesses on environmental compliance and makes those grades public. HB 1714’s author, Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) says the program burdens businesses and regulators. The bill also would restrict public hearings on permit applications. The League of Conservation Voters said after the bill was scheduled for a vote, “As the West explosion demonstrates, more, not less, public disclosure is critically needed in Texas.”

Don’t expect help from Congress, either. In February, 11 House members (10 Republicans and one Democrat) joined two dozen industry groups, including the Fertilizer Institute, the American Chemistry Council and the International Institution of Ammonia Refrigeration, to promote the General Duty Clarification Act, which would sap the EPA of much of its powers to regulate safety and security at major chemical sites under the Clean Air Act. The bill is a project of the Koch Brothers, the Kansas-based petrochemical titans whose investments include fertilizer production.

The Koch Brothers and their hirelings at the state and federal governments never rest, so progressive populists need to redouble their efforts if they want to change business as usual. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2013
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