Does Homeland Security Apply to The Whole Homeland?
Boston’s bombings have brought out all kinds of conspiracy theory and bigoted reactions, even though nobody knows anything with much certainty yet. The West Fertilizer Company explosion on April 17 resulted from an actual, American conspiracy of a very familiar sort, a conspiracy of deliberate corporate denial or deceit – for an example, think about tobacco companies – combined with government inaction.
When an explosion in Texas kills an as yet uncertain number of people, leveling almost half the town, that’s just as sad as the Boston event for those directly involved, but it doesn’t make as compelling television. And it doesn’t make compelling politics.
The northeast Texas town of West, population 2,800 or so, overwhelmingly white, mostly of Czech descent, was largely unknown to its fellow citizens until its fertilizer storage and processing plant blew up, after burning for about half an hour, due to currently unknown causes.
The explosion in West registered 2.1 on the Richter scale, much more powerful than the Boston bombs that didn’t register as earthquakes at all. The explosion in West killed more people, injured more people, and destroyed much more property than the bombs in Boston, where property damage was negligible, less than a serious storm.
Ten Times as Many Runners in Boston as Residents in West, Texas
Almost ten times as many people run in the Boston Marathon as live in West, Texas. The Boston event draws about half a million spectators to a city of 625,000, numbers that dwarf the Texas town that is home to little more than one one-hundredth of one per cent of the total Texas population of more than 26 million.
The explosion in West, Texas, was so powerful it blew out windows two miles away. People heard it for miles, and some felt it as much as a hundred miles away. It destroyed perhaps more than a third of the town, including a school (empty) and a retirement home (133 residents). Railroad tracks were destroyed some distance from the blast, which pushed the closer rail across the ties against the farther rail.
Some sense of the intensity and unexpectedness of the explosion is captured in short cellphone videos, including one taken by a father in his vehicle with his daughter, watching as the West Fertilizer Co. burned. Then the blast overwhelms the camera, making the picture indecipherable even as the daughter clearly yell to her father, “Please get out of here! Please get out of here!”
Unlike an unpredictable and uncontrollable terrorist bomb, a fertilizer plant explosion is totally predictable and nearly controllable. Everyone knows fertilizers can be made into bombs. That was a fertilizer bomb that destroyed the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Fertilizer plants, like the one that burned in Bryan, Texas, in 2009, have been a well-known danger for almost a century.
West Fertilizer Wasn’t Much Regulated By Anyone
Known danger isn’t necessarily a danger attended to, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
“The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Thursday that the West Fertilizer Co. facility that exploded Wednesday was built in 1962, before state and federal requirements for toxic emissions were established. As a result, the facility was grandfathered until state law required it to get a permit in 2004. The company didn’t acquire the permit until after a 2006 investigation by the environmental agency found it in violation of the law.
“The agency said it had investigated the facility in 2002 after dust complaints and found “no nuisance conditions.” A citizen complaint about odor prompted the June 2006 investigation that determined the facility was operating without authorization.
“In a follow-up site visit on September 2006, the agency noted no concerns, and issued the necessary permit on December of that year. It also conducted another site investigation on January 2007. Other than the 2002 and 2006 incidents, the state agency said it ‘has not received any complaints regarding this facility’.”
That summary gives an indication of why Texas has a reputation for lax enforcement of what few environmental regulations it has. And if that were the whole story for West Fertilizer, it might not be so bad.
Even the EPA Wasn’t All That Attentive to Toxic Materials
But it turns out the company had trouble with the feds, too. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actually fined West Fertilizer in 2006 for failing to plan for emergencies, or even to assess its risks carefully. The fine was $2,300. And the company agreed to make daily inspections, to put barriers around their ammonia tanks to keep vehicles from hitting them, and to install a water spray system in case of a leak.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspected West Fertilizer in 1985 and cited the company for one serious and two lesser violations. The fine was $30. Apparently OSHA has not inspected the plant since 1985.
In a more current report to the EPA, state, and local agencies in 2011, West Fertilizer said there was no risk of fire or explosion at the $4 million-a-year fertilizer processing and distribution plant. The company had filed a plan for handling the risk of its toxic materials, including 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, mostly stored in two 12,000 gallon storage tanks (only one of which exploded).
What Danger? I Don’t See Any Danger? You See Any Danger?
According to the report, reviewed by the Dallas Morning News, the company said its worst-case scenario would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one. The second-worst-case scenario, West Fertilizer said, would be a leaky hose, that would also cause no harm. The same report said the plant had no alarms, automatic shutoff system, firewall, or sprinkler system.
The Texas regulators had noted that West Fertilizer was 3,000 feet from a school and surrounded by populated areas.
The evening of the explosion, the Dallas Morning news editorialized about the sort of local zoning decisions that could lead to the kind of high-risk neighborhood created around the fertilizer plant in West. After first praising the organization, planning, and execution of first responders to this disaster, the editorial asked:
“So why didn’t local planners demonstrate an equal level of forethought and imagine what kind of problems could arise when you place a middle school, a retirement complex, apartments and houses next to a fertilizer plant with a 12,000-gallon tank containing highly volatile chemical compounds?
“Someone needs to be called to account for the scores of deaths and injuries caused by this explosion…. We cannot have people living and going to school next to sub-nuclear ticking time bombs.”
Why Isn’t it About Homeland Security in West, Texas?
But of course we can, and we have, and we will go on doing so. This isn’t Boston, this isn’t about terrorists, and in the strange doublethink of post-9/11 America, this isn’t even about homeland security.
The people who don’t want dangerous work sites inspected are much the same cohort as those who don’t want any limits on guns. And sometimes for the same reason. Sometimes carnage is good for business.
So industrial and commercial deaths will go on happening in a shadow world, at an “acceptable” level, often going unreported and almost always unexplored, even though the industrial death rate beats terrorism by a factor of hundreds.
Tobacco companies and others aren’t terrorists, no matter how many people they kill – but only because they aren’t interested in terrorizing us. On the contrary, they, like any corporation with a lethal product to sell, are much more interested in reassuring us and telling us how cool and free and independent we are to choose their essentially suicidal offerings.
What Does Monsanto Have to Do With Any of This?
Which brings us, oddly enough to Monsanto, which is the defendant in a federal would-be class action lawsuit filed in 2007 by Texas Grain Storage, Inc, the company now known as West Fertilizer Co. Sometime around 1970, West entered into a business relationship with Monsanto that continued for decades, and the lawsuit (in which many documents remain sealed) appears to center on a 1997 contract between the two companies, under which West agreed to annual purchases of the herbicide Roundup.
In the case apparently filed in 2008, Texas-Grain-now-known-as-West has been represented by some 30 lawyers at a dozen firms. The most recent filing in the case was in 2010, when a Texas magistrate judge ruled against making the case a class action. West has appealed and the appeal is still pending.
Soon after the fertilizer plant explosion, Waco police on the scene said the cause was unknown. No cause has been officially announced yet.
Nevertheless, USA Today confidently assured the world that blowing up West Fertilizer was “not terrorism-related.”
More opaquely, a Monsanto spokesman said on April 18, “The long dormant lawsuit filed by Texas Grain had nothing to do with fertilizer or the operation of the West, Texas plant.”