April 23, 2013

#WestTX fertilizer plant and regulatory #fail and lies

It's a sad day in West, Texas. West Fertilizer's plant has exploded, likely killing several people and definitely injuring more than 100. Jobs are lost for months, even it it employed less than 10 people. Some may never come back, even if the plant's owner does rebuild there, which is of course not guaranteed. In a town as small as West, with a population of under 3,000, the loss of jobs like this will have a huge ripple effect, if even just a few. (And that's not counting all the injured losing work time.)

But, none of this had to happen.

The ammonium nitrate fertilizer blew up after a fire started at the plant.

But West Fertilizer told the Environmental Protection Agency there was no fire danger at the plant.
(T)he report, reviewed Wednesday night by The Dallas Morning News, stated “no” under fire or explosive risks. The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one.
And, that's simply not true. And, indeed, the EPA fined it $2,600 for not having a risk management plan. State records identify it as a seller, not a manufacturer, which probably contributed to it drawing lesser scrutiny on safety.

Not only was there fire danger, there was an actual fire earlier this year, that forced a school to be evacuated.
A fire at the plant earlier this year caused officials at nearby West Intermediate School to evacuate the campus, but a memo from West ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford shows school officials had no prior warning of it.
Crawford wrote to parents in February that when school officials called 9-1-1, the dispatcher had no knowledge of what turned out to be a controlled burn of pallets and brush on the property. It is not yet known what started Wednesday’s fire that erupted in a massive explosion just before 8 p.m.
Oh, loverly. Dunno who was supposed to alert the school, but that was certainly a failure, even if it was a controlled burn.

And, speaking of failure, from the same story:
A Texas Commission on Environmental Quality inspector in 2007 noted that the plant was near two schools and within 350 feet of a home, but described the impact potential of the plant as “low,” the newspaper reported.
Whether we blame TCEQ more, or the plant's owner more, there's blame a-plenty here.

And, on paper, even in regulation-toothless Texas, this is why regulatory agencies are supposed to exist.

And, Tricky Ricky doesn't like being asked about that.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the regulation side,” Perry said. “You all in California are not very knowledgeable about the energy industry” which, he said, “is a fairly dangerous workplace’ compared to other industries.  He argued that worker injuries and deaths would not be reduced by better safety regulations: “It’s not because of lack of regulations.”
What a lie. California is one of the nation's top five oil producing states. It knows plenty about oilfields and trying to improve oilfield safety.

And, on April 22, Tricky Ricky doubled down on his anti-regulatory attitude.

Somewhat related, the Guardian says OSHA hadn't inspected the plant since 1985.

That said, in a relatively conservative (the county went 62-38 percent for McCain in 2008), small Texas town, how many of its residents believed they had adequate regulatory protection? Or, how many believed the talking points of the likes of Rick Perry that Texas was already overregulated, especially regarding the likes of the EPA?

No, not schadenfreude, of course not. Genuine sadness. But, with a bit of head-shaking.

In general, the conservative mindset, contra Chris Mooney's Republican Brain book, which describes it as normally angst-ridden, tends to dismiss worst-case scenarios when doing regulatory oversight. Like Don Rumsfeld and the Iraq War.

That said, per small bits of speculation in such places, yes, it's (roughly) the 20th anniversary of ... but I do not think this is a revenge blast for David Koresh and the Branch Davidian showdown. Not even close.


Anonymous said...

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the regulation side,” Perry said. “You all in California are not very knowledgeable about the energy industry” which, he said, “is a fairly dangerous workplace’ compared to other industries.

ENERGY industry? This was a fertilizer plant, not an oil refinery.

Or is Perry saying that Texas runs on BS?

Gadfly said...

Well, if a fish rots from the head down, we know who the chief BS fueler is, don't we?