The West, Texas Explosion: A Horrific Lesson on Lax Regulatory Oversight

April 29th, 2013 · No Comments · role of government, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

At the risk of sounding insensitive about the bombings in Boston (which would not be true), I could not help but compare, from the outset, how that event was covered by both national media and the Albuquerque Journal to the way the West, Texas fertilizer explosion was played.

Because the former was an act of political terrorism that killed and maimed, because it affected both Bostonians and those who had traveled to attend the marathon or other Patriot Day events, and because it involved a dramatic manhunt with (essentially) closure of a major American city and nearby suburbs, the Boston story unquestionably belonged on Page One, as the lead story, for any major news outlet (whether in the United States or abroad) over the course of several days. That is where and how the Journal ran it, and rightly so.

The fertilizer explosion two days after Boston turned parts of a small Texas town to rubble. First news stories from the blast reported that as many as 15 had died (later corrected to 14), more than 160 were injured (later updated to 200), and that “the blast shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and crumpled dozens of homes, an apartment complex, a school and a nursing home.” The sheer numbers in terms of death and damage were greater in West than in Boston, but the Associated Press story from which these quotes came was carried on an inside page in the Journal. (“Texas rubble combed for survivors” ran on A5.)

City University of New York physics professor Michio Kaku put the explosion in perspective on “CBS This Morning” the day after the blast (my emphasis added):

The Boston bombing, as tragic as it was, released the energy of one stick of dynamite. Ammonium nitrate, released in an accident of this sort, can release the energy of several truckloads of dynamite, enough to set off a 2.1-magnitude earthquake in terms of intensity. The Oklahoma City bombing, for example, was based on one ton of fertilizer. Here, they were licensed to have over 25 tons. So you can imagine the scale, the enormity of what happened.

The simple explanation for the Texas story running inside is this: The bomb that went off in West was characterized as “an accident.” Kaku called it that, and there it is, in paragraph five of the AP story:

There was no indication the blast, which sent up a mushroom-shaped plume of smoke and left behind a crater, was anything other than an industrial accident, he (Waco police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton) said.

And without detracting from the horror of the Boston bombing, it should be said: The terrorist attack in Boston was, arguably, unpredictable and difficult to prevent, but the fertilizer bomb in West was both predictable and entirely preventable. It was an accident waiting to happen.

That it was not prevented can be blamed in part on Texas’ lax regulatory environment, which Gov. Rick Perry actually touts as an incentive for attracting business; along with lack of compliance with regulations that do exist; and lack of meaningful enforcement and oversight– both in terms of lenient penalties and lack of personnel to carry out inspections.

This tragedy in our neighboring state should be a wake-up call to those lobbying for less regulation and smaller government in New Mexico and at the federal level.

In West, Texas, a school was obliterated and two others, the middle and high schools, would likely have to be razed, according to the AP story the Journal ran April 22. Classes were not in session when the explosion occurred. Six firefighters and four emergency medics were among the dead, responding to the fire that broke out before the deadly and terrifying explosion, which, coincidentally, occurred one day after the anniversary of the nation’s worst industrial accident in history — which also occurred in Texas (it nearly destroyed Galveston) and which also involved ammonium nitrate.

A good summary of the fertilizer industry and how it’s regulated, along with telling photographs of the West catastrophe, may be found in this Washington Post blog.

More than a week passed after the Texas blast (April 26) before the Journal ran any information implicating lax regulation and enforcement, and it came in the form of a column by Amy Goodman, “Let’s learn from Texas explosion,” which summarized reports that had surfaced in the wake of the Texas tragedy. Among the findings: West Fertilizer Co. had never reported its ammonium nitrate stocks to the Department of Homeland Security, even though it had 270 tons of the stuff, far beyond the amount required for a facility to self-report to DHS. (Note: Goodman’s column as carried by the Journal contained an error in saying West had 2,700 tons.)

Also, Goodman wrote, OSHA hadn’t inspected the plant since 1985, and the last Environmental Protection Agency report on West listed a different fertilizer (anhydrous ammonia) and reported no serious hazard.

The column noted the “routine-ness” inherent in this scenario, saying:

Unsafe workplaces cause injury and death on a daily basis in this country, but seem to be tolerated as simply the cost of doing business.

The Journal did run, consistently, AP follow-ups on the blast for more than a week, all of which appeared in the A section, including an insurance group’s estimate that the cost of damage would exceed $100 million, in addition to the toll of dead and injured. (As with the Boston bombings, there is no way to estimate the number of people terrified and forever shaken by the event.)

And the Journal came up with an enterprise piece of its own: Reporter Olivier Uyttebrouck came up with a timely story, which took the top of Page One on April 23, about a retired Sandia National Laboratories engineer’s work in developing a nonexplosive form of fertilizer, which Uyttebrouck noted, “has the potential to improve industrial safety” while benefiting farmers. An explosives expert, engineer Kevin Fleming came up with the idea after helping train U.S. soldiers in disarming roadside bombs, according to the story.

Uyttebrouck’s piece contained interesting information beyond what other media carried about the Texas explosion, explaining that Fleming’s iron sulfate mixture – which does not explode, even when exposed to heat or fire – will not be patented or licensed by Sandia, so as to encourage its adoption by manufacturers.

What the story did not contain – and indeed, it was not the appropriate venue for such an insertion – was any comment about regulation.

Goodman’s column did mention lack of oversight, and was timed to honor Workers’ Memorial Day (observed today, April 28), to commemorate, as she reports, the 13 workers a day, on average, who “go to work each day and never come home.”

Ensuring worker health and safety – and community health and safety – should be part of any conversation that involves pleas for fewer regulations and a hurry-it-up attitude toward getting more business in this state.

Yet Journal readers are constantly being asked to ignore as insignificant such concerns in columns written by supporters of oil and gas and other extractive industries. Using the tired and true mantra that “Our state has been poor too long,” industry promoter Paul Gessing of the Rio Grande Foundation was given prominent play again this month (April 8) when Business Outlook ran his “Natural gas could be N.M.’s ace in the hole.” As is his habit, Gessing argued in this piece that the money New Mexico will see by pursuing fracking (which has proven detrimental  in other states) will enhance citizen health overall by improving health care.

Over these last two weeks since the bombings in Boston and Texas, it’s been interesting to read other stories in the Journal tangentially related to those two events.

Journal Crime and Justice columnist Diane Dimond, pondering President Obama’s promise to foist on the Boston perpetrators “the full weight of justice,” wondered:

Given all the federal sequestration-caused furloughs within the ranks of federal investigators and prosecutors, who exactly will provide the “weight” behind this promised justice?

Thinking about West, Texas, I wondered, given that federal agencies like OSHA were already working with skeleton crews, how inspectors could ever stay on top of the fertilizer storage sites scattered about the country. (At small Texas plants, the Texas Tribune reported, it’s essentially “a system of self-regulation.”)

In New Mexico, Journal Investigative Reporter Colleen Heild revealed in a special report the existence of the “E-vacant” file, where more than 500 requests for electrical inspections have been “parked for months” and are “slipping through the cracks.” The Journal editorialized on that report Wednesday, noting that “officials are quick to point out there have been no disasters attributable to bad wiring” at the sites, which are oil and gas well projects and water well and electric hookups of manufactured homes in southeastern New Mexico.

The editorial then added:

But that’s not a lottery New Mexico should be playing.

So, the Journal is heartened by the governor’s order to the Construction Industries Division to catch up in inspecting those sites within 30 days, even though the “E-vacant” file was created, according to Heild’s story, because “There was (and is) no way we could physically visit all of those locations” without hiring more inspectors, according to CID electric bureau chief James “Kelly” Hunt.  From Heild’s story:

State construction industries officials say they created “E-Vacant” after being “run over” with requests from Lea, Eddy and Chaves counties for oil and gas well inspections over the past year. A legislative analysis in March found that at least 1,070 oil and gas wells were completed in 2012.

Perhaps the CID, as the Journal editorial suggested, could streamline its permitting/inspection system. But the obvious moral of this story is that with every belt-tightening measure, every loss of a “government” job, comes the possibility a dangerous situation will go without remedy.

Another of the columns run by the Journal last week (April 22) warned against citizens becoming jaded to terrorism. “Acts of terror should never become the routine,” was the headline.

To that I would add: Industrial accidents should never become the routine. With proper oversight and regulation — along with whistleblower protection — they can and should be prevented.

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