What attention the explosion at the West, Texas fertilizer company has been getting from most of the main stream media has been to cover the lives of the first responders who died in this tragic event along with some of the residents of West who also suffered from an explosion that registered an equivalency of a 2.1 earthquake. And as unsettling as all that is, it’s what you haven’t heard or seen in the media that will disturb you the most.
Today I live a little over a hundred miles north of the small central Texas town of West in a region that became popular with many descendants of Czech immigrants in the late 19th century. West is perhaps best known by visitors passing through this small community off of Interstate 35 for the kolaches that are a pastry favorite of the Czechs, most notably sold at the Little Czech Bakery at exit 353. In fact the town was officially designated “Home of the Official Kolache of the Texas Legislature” in 1997.
I know the town of West best from the mid-1960’s when a teenage friend of mine and I would travel down there most Sundays so we could watch the Dallas Cowboys play on the TV set at the VFW hall in West. The VFW was also located at exit 353 but on the opposite side of I-35 from the Little Czech Bakery. Don and I both dropped out of high school in 1966 to join the Marines but before that, when he had his little Austin-Healey Sprite, we traveled the 70 something miles from Dallas where I lived at the time.
In the 60’s the Cowboys hadn’t yet become America’s Team so sell outs to the game weren’t always assured. If the local game didn’t sell out two days before it was played it was blacked out in the area. Thus the trip to West, which for us, with gas around 25 cents a gallon then, made it cheaper to drive to West than to buy a ticket and watch the Cowboys play at the Cotton Bowl. Texas Stadium had yet to be built.
The Little Czech Bakery is part of a business that also supplies other needs for travelers sold in the attached Czech Stop. As the picture on the right shows, this popular roadside stop was just 3 miles south of where the fertilizer plant was that exploded April 17th.
So this brief but memorable history with the town of West came back into my consciousness following the horrible explosion of the fertilizer plant. The interest that developed for me following this explosion became focused on what caused it and any subsequent investigation to discover what led to the death of 14 people and where many homes and a 50-unit apartment building were completely devastated beyond repairs. It is this lack of media coverage regarding the investigation of what caused the explosion that grates at me.
Unlike the thoroughness by which we learned of the who and what of the Boston Marathon bombers as well as coverage regarding the victims, we have only been left with the somber reality of the fertilizer explosion by the televised tributes to its victims. With the exception of the Dallas Morning News, why hasn’t the MSM here locally done more to expose what the conditions were at the West Fertilizer plant?
Though a “spokesman for the F.B.I. in San Antonio said Thursday there had been no indication of criminal activity in the West plant explosion,” I would challenge that presumption with the facts we have. It may prove true that there was no certain individual or group that willfully set the fire that ultimately led to the detonation of the ammonium nitrate stored there. A quantity by the way that’s been revealed to be “1,350 times the amount … that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).” But we do have evidence of misleading information from the owners of West Fertilizer, Inc. as well as what appears to be negligence on the part of of Texas oversight agencies that any honest prosecutor might deem worthy of a court’s interest.
Here’s what we know.
The West Fertilizer Co. was cited for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit in 2006 after a complaint [by nearby residents] of a strong ammonia smell.
Because of deep-budget cuts that undermans federal regulatory agencies, OSHA has inspected the West plant exactly once in the company’s 51-year history. That 1985 inspection detected multiple “serious” violations of federal safety requirements for which the company paid a grand total of $30 in fines. OSHA’s 1992 process-safety-management standard for highly hazardous chemicals is supposed to protect against disasters like the West explosion, but it wasn’t in place for that inspection.
The failure of OSHA to do due diligence here is related to a conflict between OSHA and the state of Texas regarding the number of employees at the plant. “Some plants with 10 or fewer employees are exempt from oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A spokesman says the Texas plant had 13 employees when the accident occurred, but state records show it had only seven.”
The fact that the “West Fertilizer Co. was handling 2,400 tons a year [in 2006] of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate in a warehouse near schools, houses and a nursing home” as noted in a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TECQ) permit apparently didn’t raise any “concerns, either internally or with other agencies, about explosion risks or the proper management of a chemical already notorious in Texas history.”
Bryan W. Shaw, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee as TCEQ chairman, told the Dallas Morning News that “the state chemist and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration [have] responsibility for regulating fertilizer fire and explosion risks. But the regulatory scrutiny for ammonium nitrate storage that Shaw outlined does not exist”.
The logical state agencies for oversight are disavowing their responsibility to cover the hazards of storing ammonium nitrate, a chemical in fertilizers used by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh to blow up the Murrah Bldg. in Oklahoma City back in 1995. “We don’t, at TCEQ, evaluate the explosive threat associated with these types of facilities,” said Perry appointee Shaw. And according to agency spokespersons, “the federal pipeline agency governs only transportation, not storage. The head of the state chemist’s office, Tim Herrman, said his agency has no legal authority or expertise to pursue fire or explosive safety at places that store ammonium nitrate.”
The knowledge Texas state agencies had about how “a routine fire getting out of control and superheating a container with a large volume of ammonium nitrate, widely used as a fertilizer and as an explosive [apparently failed to] discuss fire or explosive risks with the company or each other.”
A West Fertilizer, Inc. risk management plan, given to the EPA, stated that there was a “no” checked under fire or explosive risks, even though they also reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand. “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one. The second worst possibility projected was a leak from a broken hose used to transfer the product, again causing no injuries.”
Apparently the first responders who died in this explosion were either unaware or uninformed that when dealing with a fire where anhydrous ammonia was present that water should not be used. Using water to fight such a fire“ will result in warming of the product, causing the liquid to turn into a vapor cloud,” says the website of Calamco, a growers’ cooperative in California.
Now when you take all of these facts into consideration and then throw into the mix the apparent anti-regulatory attitude by Governor Rick Perry and most state agency administrators, especially the TCEQ, then it wouldn’t take a rocket science to draw the reasonable conclusion that criminal charges are not out of the question regarding the explosion at the West Fertilizer plant. But it’ll be a cold day in hell before our so-called representative form of government seeks to criminally prosecute any business that some state officials themselves are culpable of for conditions that caused the deaths of innocent Texans.
After Tim Herrman defended his agency against any negligence, I found it interesting that “the Office of the Texas State Chemist, a division of Texas A&M University, is fighting a Dallas Morning News request for inspection and inventory records, citing national security concerns regarding ammonium nitrate, which can be highly explosive and used in bombs.” To understand now how something poses a threat to our national security but at the time didn’t seem important enough to convey to the appropriate agency is the height of hypocrisy and seems more to be the actions of one attempting to expiate themselves for their failure in this matter.
This lack of attention to the safety of our workplaces and neighborhoods is no accident. It is the product of a concerted attack by the US Chamber of Commerce, industry trade associations, and conservative think tanks on what they see as onerous regulatory programs – but ones that were enacted by Congress over the years to protect the public from irresponsible corporate misconduct. SOURCE
The corporate media in this country along with overly corporate-friendly government officials will go out of their way to expose every facet to justify their prosecution of the so-called “War on Terror” but don’t expect them to police themselves when it comes to criminal negligence or willful disregard for the public’s safety by devotees of “free-market” capitalism.
In a Washington Post op-ed piece, labor reporter Mike Elk noted that the “decline in [media] coverage has created an environment in which companies may feel as if they can get away with massive safety violations because they will face little scrutiny from the media and the public.” A reporter at the Charleston Gazette who covered workers’ safety for many years, Ken Ward Jr., in a tweet to Mike Elk a few days earlier summed it up best when he said, “Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention – so we give that to them.”
I can’t speak for all North Texans, but I know that my memories of the West, Texas I knew as a teenager have had sufficient consoling with all of the reporting done about the victims in that tiny town conveyed by the MSM. It’s time now for some serious efforts to expose the people and the conditions that led to this awful disaster even if that goes all the way to the governor’s mansion. No more soft pedaling of the poor performances of the West Fertilizer Company owners and the state agencies we entrusted to carry out basic safety inspections.
Death by acts of terror doesn’t even register on this graph
More people in this country have and will die from such industry negligence and regulatory agency incompetence than any acts of terrorism have or ever will. Since May, 1886 there have been 23 attempted or successful acts of terrorism; domestic and foreign. Of those 23 there have been a total of 3291 Americans killed. 2976 of those occurred on September 11th, 2001. Due to work place safety issues some 4500 workers die each year on the job. Just because some have problems viewing criminality beyond the desperate acts of low-income people or those with middle eastern ancestry is not something that decent people should abide by.