Thursday, April 18, 2013

West's Blast Casts New Light on Rules

Mind-boggling.

Not just the stunning news of a massive industrial explosion in the tiny town of West, Texas yesterday evening.  If you saw the live, televised coverage from news helicopters last night, scattered patches of orange fire all over West gave the scary impression that the entire town had been blown off the map.

What's just as mind-boggling, however, is that any facility of the type that exploded exists within the neighborhoods of such a small town to begin with.

Search and rescue crews continue picking through the rubble, and thankfully, survivors are being found.  The death toll, while unfortunate at any number, is far lower than initial estimates from last night.  New video in the light of day also reveals that the destruction wasn't as widespread as it seemed in last night's chaos.  Among the many things for which West's residents have to be thankful today, including its brave first responders and the overwhelming emergency response from its neighboring communities, is that the devastation isn't as bad as we feared it might be.

Still, doesn't it all seem to have been completely preventable?

Some of us who are physically and emotionally removed from the crisis afflicting West have already begun wondering:  who in their right mind builds an apartment complex, a nursing home, a junior high school, and a senior high school right next to a fertilizer plant?  Even if, as some now clarify, this facility didn't technically manufacture fertilizer, but processed and stored it?  Nevertheless, regardless of what this facility did to the components of fertilizer, how did it come to be located so close to residential neighborhoods?

Would you want to live next to something so dangerous?

Who Knew What?

Technically, the town's official boundaries come right up to - but don't include - the storage area at Adair Grain Inc.'s West Fertilizer Company facility.  So it's likely that town officials had little jurisdiction over what plant officials did on-site.  Besides, it's not like many towns this size in Texas have zoning laws to begin with.  News reports say this plant has existed on this site for decades, and it's entirely likely that when it was built, it was considered to be "out in the country."  As West's northeastern neighborhoods crept up to and around the plant, over years of municipal growth and expansion, the plant was viewed as a benign - if sometimes smelly - native.

That still doesn't answer the question of why anybody would build or buy a house near a fertilizer facility, let alone construct West Middle School, which was destroyed in the blast, and Rest Haven, the heavily damaged nursing home.  Even if everybody knew what it was, were they informed about how dangerous it was?

Now, I'm hardly an expert on fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and the other significant dangers associated with this type of industry, but neither am I stupid.  We know what happened in Oklahoma City, and how much destruction 41 fifty-pound bags of fertilizer inflicted to and around the former Murrah Federal Building.  It doesn't take much armchair quarterbacking to point out that town officials in West should have been deeply concerned about a fertilizer plant near their community, much less one squatting right on its border. 

Which brings us back to the stark reality that somebody was either incredibly naive, or deceived.

I'm going with the "deceived" assumption, since it's hard to imagine somebody authorizing the money it takes to construct and run public facilities so close to such a potential liability as a fertilizer plant.  Unless they've been led to believe the fertilizer plant holds no threat.

Last night, the Dallas Morning News quickly discovered that in a report to the Environmental Protection Agency, plant officials in West certified that their facility posed no risk of fire or explosion.  Hmm.  There's also a report circulating around the Internet that the facility was cited in 2006 for having insufficient permits.  Also being rumored is that the local volunteer fire department had not been provided with adequate documentation and instruction regarding how to combat a fire involving fertilizer.

Apparently, as I easily learned online, one should not pour water directly onto a fire involving ammonia.  Rather, if a foaming fire suppressant is not available, a misting technique should be used for applying water to the conflagration.  It's a little different with ammonium nitrate.

Had those valiant volunteer firefighters - and of all people, those who voluntarily fight fires are valiant, aren't they? - been trained in how to fight a fire at this plant?

Should Action Wait?

There are those who will say that now is not the time to be casting blame or criticizing.  Yet I say now is exactly the time when we need to begin constructing a dialog, when the public's attention is riveted to this subject.  After all, this isn't a personal, private tragedy, or even a natural disaster - this was utterly preventable.  West's catastrophe carries profound and urgent implications regarding safety procedures, hazardous material regulations, and the degree of oversight to which companies such as this small plant are subjected.  It's a ghastly social event, yet it's also a depressingly political issue.  And proactive politics only happen when the public is riled up about something.

Which, of course, brings us to the strong aversion many conservatives have towards what is perceived as governmental intrusion into commerce, social freedom, and personal liberties.  "Government regulations!  Big government!  Nanny state rules!"  I can hear it now.

Except... the people who would be sputtering these complaints are actually alive to do so.  The people who've been killed in West, obviously, can't.  Even the people in West who've survived, but whose homes have been blown apart, would probably wish that some government official knew what was truly going on at that fertilizer facility on the edge of town, and was forcing it to comply with all applicable safety regulations.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  rules and regulations usually evolve from somebody's stupidity or selfishness.  If we took better responsibility for preventing undesirable outcomes, there wouldn't be the push for so many laws when people are impacted by negative consequences.  After all, not all rules are onerous to everybody affected by them, are they?  Don't we often forget how the safety and cleanliness we enjoy today is mostly the result of environmental rules businesses used to consider draconian?

Libertarians Cringe at West's Lesson

What's with all of this incessant anti-government vitriol anyway?  Consider what the apostle Paul tells us about our government, from Romans 13:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.  Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?  Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God's servant to do you good... This is also why you pay taxes...  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.  Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.  - Romans 13:1-8

Many Texans boast about the minimum regulations our state imposes on businesses.  And to a certain degree, I still believe that fewer rules makes for a better quality of life.  However, some regulations serve a vital purpose, and perhaps this tragedy in West is reminding us what that purpose is.  Especially when there are companies that, either out of greed or negligent ignorance, prioritize profit over humanity.

Am I jumping the gun here?  Should we wait for a government investigation to know how this could have been prevented?  Why does it matter how the fire started?  What matters more is how a town was allowed to grow up alongside such a potentially hazardous site.  Should we assume that people - whether they're home buyers, city officials, or company owners - are always smart enough to make their own decisions?  Sometimes, those decisions are made on faulty information and assumptions.  I'm not saying that governments know best, but I am saying that sometimes governments can provide the information necessary for people to make good decisions.  Maybe the document found by the Dallas Morning News is a red herring, and the company really was honest and open about all of their facility's possible dangers.  But which would you prefer:  to know the company wasn't at fault, and that the officials in the town and county deliberately ignored the dangers they knew about?

And to my fellow Texans:  let's face it.  There is an important role governments like ours plays in the protection of our citizenry, and so far, our Lone Star State doesn't rank well in terms of avoiding catastrophic industrial accidents.

Just up I-35 from West, in the larger city of Waxahachie, closer to Dallas, the Magnablend chemical plant burst into flames in October of 2011, sending a noxious gas cloud into a nearby neighborhood that included - of all things - an elementary school.  Fortunately, nobody was injured in that explosion, but public sentiment for a time questioned the logic of allowing residential development around potentially hazardous industrial sites.

Not that Texas Republicans are always pro-business.  In the far more affluent exurb of Frisco, north of Dallas, wealthy residents near a longtime battery recycling plant were able to force the plant's closure, even though they'd recently bought their new, expensive homes within eyesight of the decades-old facility.  Over 100 workers at the plant lost their jobs.

To a certain degree, one has to sympathize for business owners of these undesirable plants when their operations become the target of newcomers' ire.  Here in Texas, with its robust economy, many towns are growing quickly, eating up what used to be pastureland near long-operating hazmat companies.  To what degree are new property owners responsible for their own due diligence before they purchase a home, or develop a nursing home, or build a public school near an industrial facility?

At the very least, other municipalities across our pro-business state should now take a hard look at potential problem spots in their own backyards.  Additionally, however, it's obvious that all the regulations our EPA could muster could not prevent last night's tragedy.  Therefore, a willingness must exist both on the part of business owners and the community in which they operate to treat each other with respect, and take the proper actions necessary to keep people reasonably safe.

And the definition of "reasonably safe" does not include legally running a fertilizer processing facility in such close proximity to homes, schools, and even other unrelated businesses.

Let's hope West's loss will be our lesson.

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