Are Chemical and Fertilizer Companies Secret Terror Cells?
I admit I was pretty much glued to the internet and the radio for much of the day Friday as police closed in on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s hiding place, which turned out to be down the block from the home of close friends. Given how close we live to Boston, the many New Hampshire runners participated in the Boston Marathon, and the fact that local police SWAT teams joined to effort that led to Tsarnaev’s apprehension, it’s no surprise that my local newspaper had 3 front-page stories today about the aftermath of the Marathon bombing.
As I listen to two NPR Sunday morning news shows and hourly headlines providing ongoing news of the Boston events, what has me wondering is the contrast between overall coverage of the Marathon bombers and the low level of attention to the recent explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.
The April 15 Marathon bombing killed three people and sent 183 others, many with terrible injuries, to local hospitals. One law enforcement officer and one of the alleged bombers met violent deaths a few days later.
The West Fertilizer Company’s facility in West, Texas caught fire and exploded on April 17. There are 14 confirmed fatalities, including 10 volunteer firefighters, and more than 200 injured. Dozens of homes, including a 50-unit apartment building, were destroyed, and dozens more homes were damaged. My local paper today carries a 3-paragraph story on page two, reporting that Texas officials have said it is “safe, safe, and safe” for local residents to return home to the neighborhood they evacuated 3 days earlier.
All the lives lost are of immeasurable value; no mathematical formula can compare the impact of the two disasters. But they seem to be on the same scale in terms of casualties, heroism, and systemic dynamics that seethe underneath and make repeat disasters hard to predict but likely to occur.
The perpetrators of the Marathon bombing are criminals and may well be terrorists. What of the Adair Grain Company, owner of the West fertilizer distribution center?
According to the Dallas Morning News, “West Fertilizer Co. reported having as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on hand in an emergency planning report required of facilities that use toxic or hazardous chemicals.” Yet according to the Dallas daily, the company maintained the plant’s operation posed no safety risk in documents filed with the EPA.
An overview of the fertilizer industry published in a Washington Post blog stated, “The West, Texas plant stored and blended anhydrous ammonia — a pungent gas with suffocating fumes used as a fertilizer. It also contained as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can explode if mixed with fuel and ignited.” Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used ammonium nitrate to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
But the company checked off “no” under fire or explosive risks in its EPA report. “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one,” according to the Dallas paper.
Will the owners and mangers of Adair Grain be held accountable? “Within hours of the explosion, officials of the company and its insurance carriers hired a handful of law firms to prepare for a wave of litigation,” reported the Dallas Morning News. The company could face hundreds of millions in damages, but can they be charged with murder?
What of federal workplace safety officials, who have performed only six fertilizer plant inspections — not including West — in the past five years? Are they responsible?
What of Congress, which has lmited OSHA’s budget and enforcement powers so much the agency can’t do its job? Is Congress an accomplice to murder?
A 2008 survey by the Dallas Morning News identified 23 dangerous facilities located within a quarter mile of residential neighborhoods just in Dallas County. “Residents of those neighborhoods tend to be lower-income, Hispanic and living in apartments or mobile homes,” the article said.
“Dallas planning studies and zoning cases dating back nearly 65 years, reviewed by The News, almost never mention the danger of chemicals at a nearby plant or warehouse,” the article continued. “Most of the sites aren’t required to get a special permit to operate because city law covers only companies that manufacture chemicals. It doesn’t include those that store, sell or use the chemicals to make other products.”
“So the plants are hidden hazards. There are often no smokestacks with telltale clouds. And the most dangerous chemicals have household names – chlorine, which keeps water clean, and ammonia, which keeps food cold.”
According to the Washington Post, there are more than 6000 retail fertilizer facilities around the country. No doubt many neighbors are unaware of the danger they face in the event of an accident. Are corporations which conceal dangers from the public culpable?
“The need for a stronger Occupational Safety and Health Act was demonstrated this week with the tragic explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), a labor-based education and advocacy group.
“When the plant was last inspected by OSHA all the way back in 1985, it was fined only $30 for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia,” O’Connor said.
COSH is backing the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act and make felony charges possible when repeated and willful violations result in a worker’s death or serious injury.
The West fire and explosion make it obvious that it’s not only workers who are at risk. O’Connor says “We need a system in which facilities that are inherently dangerous are required to develop detailed disaster prevention plans before they’re allowed to operate.” That would be a good start.
National COSH is organizing Workers Memorial Week events around the country this week. The New Hampshire affiliate will hold its Workers Memorial Day event in Hooksett on Thursday, April 25. By coincidence, that’s the same day the fourteen West, Texas victims will be memorialized at a service at Baylor University. I haven’t heard if Barack Obama will be attending.
[Update: President Obama did attend the memorial service, at which he praised West, Texas for its community spirit and the courage of its volunteer firefighters. He did not address the cause of the explosion. Click here for his comments.]