Gov. Rick Perry has long proclaimed Texas as a state favorable to business and has limited environmental protections and regulatory rules. Just how favorable is evident in the news that West Fertilizer Co. had only $1 million in insurance after an explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 — and caused an estimated $100 million in damages. The insurance lobby has long opposed mandatory insurance laws and this case may be an example of the public cost of that success.
Texas is not unique in allowing companies to maintain minimal insurance coverage. The question is now who will pay for the damage if the company is insolvent. The state and county has already paid millions in recovery costs and are unlikely to accept responsibility. United States Fire Insurance Co. says that it will only extend $1 million for the damage under its policy.
The company maintained this ridiculously low level of insurance despite the fact that it housed extremely dangerous chemicals on its property. West Fertilizer reportedly had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on site as of the end of last year. Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman issued a statement insisting that her role is to “assess and quantify risk; we regulate the insurers that help consumers and businesses insure their risk.” Apparently they do not regulate well in the case of a company with a huge amount of potentially explosive material.
Lawyers note that if you want to drive a truck on the interstate, you need $750,000 in coverage, but this plant was allowed to maintain just $250,000 more.
The article below notes that a local resident insured her 5-acre property for $1 million because it had a stock tank on it.
In this case, Texas was great for business, just lousy for citizens.
Source: Dallas News
So why did the media choose to cover around the clock a terrorist bombing that killed fewer people and is extremely rare while all but ignoring an industrial explosion that killed more people, is far more common and is far easier to prevent? Aaron Albright, who worked on failed mine safety legislation in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine as an aide to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), joked on Twitter that the media opted to focus almost exclusively on the Boston bombings because the two stories were like “CSI/Mission Impossible vs. [a] PBS documentary.” The story of alleged terrorists with Chechen links seems far more exotic and threatening than does the story of a workplace disaster that would have been preventable if the company followed the rules.
Mike Elk, The Texas fertilizer plant explosion cannot be forgotten (via xeram)
The West, Texas, fertilizer plant, where a fire and explosion last week claimed at least 14 lives—including 11 firefighters and EMTs—and injured more than 200, was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985.
In 2011, the West Fertilizer Co. filed an emergency response plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said there was no risk of fire or explosion, despite the fact that as much as 54,000 pounds of flammable and toxic anhydrous ammonia could be stored on the site.
While the plant reported that it was storing up to 270 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to state authorities—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh needed just two tons to blow up the federal building and kill 168 people—it did not report that fact to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In addition, several other federal and state agencies had pieces of the regulatory responsibility to protect the workers and community. The plant was surrounded by homes, a senior citizen housing project and a nearby school. But as Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:
Many of these agencies have previously cited and/or fined the company. But they aren’t required to coordinate with each other, and small distributors like the one that exploded are part of a system that focuses more on larger plants.
While those state and federal agencies may inspect certain segments of a plant’s operations—emissions, for example—OSHA is the agency with the broadest mandate and authority to inspect a plant’s entire operations, enforce safety and health laws and, if need be, shut it down. But as the 2012 AFL-CIO report Death on the Job notes, OSHA is so understaffed and underfunded that federal inspectors can inspect each workplace on average of one each 131 years.
There are some 2,200 OSHA inspectors for the country’s 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. In Texas, OSHA conducted 4,448 inspections in the past fiscal year, a pace that would mean it would visit every workplace in 126 years, according to Death on the Job.
In addition, says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, the West Fertilizer plant had just seven employees and “these kind of workplaces are not typically inspected by OSHA.”
What people don’t understand is how limited resources are to oversee workplace safety and health.
BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster calls the 35-year gap, since the last inspection at the West Fertilizer plant, “a stunning indictment” of OSHA’s underfunding.
While the Obama administration has increased funding for OSHA after nearly a decade of cuts under the Bush administration, the Republican sequester now in place “means fewer inspectors to monitor facilities like the West Fertilizer Company,” says Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate for Public Citizen.
Small budgets also make it even harder for the agency to issue new safety standards. The agency’s budget is similar to what it was several decades ago, but the size of the economy—and the number and complexity of workplaces to inspect—has grown tremendously.
Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says, “This tragic explosion points to the need for more resources allocated to OSHA.”
With adequate funding for more OSHA inspectors, more potentially dangerous sites— like this fertilizer manufacturing plant—can be inspected and hazards abated.
But while workplace safety advocates have pushed for stronger health and safety standards—including chemical safety standards for facilities such as West Fertilizer, Covert writes:
Even with all of the evidence that the plant fell through a variety of regulatory cracks, an industry-backed bill with ties to the Koch brothers with the support of 11 congressmen would reduce the EPA’s powers to regulate major chemical sites.
For a more detailed look at the regulatory history of the West Fertilizer plant, see this Huffington Post report by Chris Kirkham and Ben Hallman.
Photo courtesy of Greenpeace by Ron Heflin. View more on Greenpeace’s Flickr page.
Ask yourself this: Do you know the name of any one of the victims killed in the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company disaster? Do you know how many of them there were? Their ages, aspirations, what they looked like, whether they left behind children or what messages they last posted on Facebook? Do you know if there is an explanation yet for what caused the explosion? Or if investigators are still searching for one? You probably don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and I didn’t either until I started writing this article. I didn’t know that as of Sunday, April 21, four days after the explosion, officials have confirmed fourteen deaths, eleven of whom were first responders, and that as many as sixty people remain missing. I didn’t know the name Jerry Chapman, 25, who volunteered with the Abbot Fire Company and who, according to his girlfriend Gina Rodriguez, was training to be an EMT. I didn’t know the name Cody Dragoo, 50, who was both an employee of the fertilizer plant and a West firefighter (the town has an all-volunteer force). And I had never heard of West firefighter Morris Bridges, 41, who lived just a few doors down from the facility and whose 18-year-old son Brent Bridges stood on the porch as the blast that killed his father blew out the windows of their home.
Boston, West, Newtown: For Whom the Bells Toll, For Whom the Alarms Ring (via azspot)
Wednesday’s blast heightens concerns that regulations governing ammonium nitrate and other chemicals – present in at least 6,000 depots and plants in farming states across the country – are insufficient. The facilities serve farmers in rural areas that typically lack stringent land zoning controls, many of the facilities sit near residential areas.
Apart from the Department of Homeland Security, the West Fertilizer site was subject to a hodgepodge of regulation by the EPA, OSHA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Office of the Texas State Chemist.
But the material is exempt from some mainstays of U.S. chemicals safety programs. For instance, the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) requires companies to submit plans describing their handling and storage of certain hazardous chemicals. Ammonium nitrate is not among the chemicals that must be reported.
In its RMP filings, West Fertilizer reported on its storage of anhydrous ammonia and said that it did not expect a fire or explosion to affect the facility, even in a worst-case scenario. And it had not installed safeguards such as blast walls around the plant.
A separate EPA program, known as Tier II, requires reporting of ammonium nitrate and other hazardous chemicals stored above certain quantities. Tier II reports are submitted to local fire departments and emergency planning and response groups to help them plan for and respond to chemical disasters. In Texas, the reports are collected by the Department of State Health Services. Over the last seven years, according to reports West Fertilizer filed, 2012 was the only time the company stored ammonium nitrate at the facility.
It reported having 270 tons on site.
“That’s just a god awful amount of ammonium nitrate,” said Bryan Haywood, the owner of a hazardous chemical consulting firm in Milford, Ohio. “If they were doing that, I would hope they would have gotten outside help.”
In response to a request from Reuters, Haywood, who has been a safety engineer for 17 years, reviewed West Fertilizer’s Tier II sheets from the last six years. He said he found several items that should have triggered the attention of local emergency planning authorities – most notably the sudden appearance of a large amount of ammonium nitrate in 2012.
“As a former HAZMAT coordinator, that would have been a red flag for me,” said Haywood, referring to hazardous materials.
West Fertilizer was built in the middle of the small town of West, TX, a community founded in the 19th century and named after the first local postmaster, T.M. West. It makes no sense, of course, to put a facility that uses highly toxic anhydrous ammonia as a primary feed stock — a compound that burns the lungs and kills on contact, and that, because it must be stored under pressure, is highly prone to leaks and explosive releases — and that makes as its main product ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Ammonium nitrate is the highly explosive compound favored by truck bombers like the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. It was the fertilizer, vast quantities of which were stored at the West Fertilizer plant site, which caused the colossal explosion that leveled much of the town of West.
Building such a dangerous facility in the midst of a residential and business area, and allowing homes, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and playgrounds to be built alongside it, is the result of a corrupt process that is common in towns and cities across America, where business leaders routinely have their way with local planning and zoning commissions, safety inspectors and city councils. Businesses small and large also have their way with state and federal safety and health inspectors.
We know that the EPA, back in 2006, cited West Fertilizer for not having an emergency risk management plan. That is, a dangerous and explosion-prone plant that was using a hazardous chemical in large quantities, and that was storing highly explosive material also in large quantities, had made little or no effort to assess the risks of what it was doing. Indeed, it has been reported that the company had assured the EPA, in response to the complaint, that there was “no risk” of an explosion at the plant! An AP article reports that the company, five years after being cited for lacking a risk plan, did file one with the EPA, but that the report claimed the company “…was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.”
Yet the AP article goes on to say that “State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”
The article says:
“Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant’s ammonia tanks weren’t properly labeled.”
Then the article gets to the crux of the problem, saying:
“The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.”
Aside from the ridiculousness of West Fertilizer management’s reported assertion that the plant wasn’t handling flammable materials (a claim that the current deadly catastrophe has demonstrably proved was false), consider the incredible response of the EPA to this incredible assertion: The agency, emasculated by the Bush administration, and still a joke under the Obama administration, levied a pathetically small fine, but did nothing to shut the operation down until it put in place critical safety measures.
The other agency that could have acted, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is even more of a paper tiger than the EPA. Despite their inherent risks and hazards, it is reported that OSHA has made only six investigations of fertilizer plant operators in Texas in the last six years. West Fertilizer was not one of them. In six years, it has not been visited by OSHA inspectors!
How can this be so? Because the entire health and safety regulatory apparatus of the US, from the federal level to the states and right down to local government, has been effectively neutered by corporate interests, who have used everything from threats of relocating to campaign contributions and outright bribes of officials and elected representatives to buy or win the right to basically operate as unsafely as they like, free of supervision.
As a result, regulation of dangerous plants and factories in the US these days is essentially nonexistent.
That, to me, is a kind of terrorism, and it is far more dangerous to the health and safety of the American people than any foreign or domestic terrorist or terrorist organization.
Yet the bulk of the American people are focusing their fears on terrorists from abroad, or in some cases here at home, not on the corporate suites where the real evil and the real danger lies.
Until we Americans wake up and insist that our elected officials and the regulatory bureaucrats they appoint, actually act in the public interest and not in the interest of the moneyed corporate elite (booting out those that betray us), we will increasingly all pay the price as plants blow up or leak toxic gas, as oil and gas companies wantonly pollute our water tables with carcinogenic toxins, and as nuclear power plants dump isotopes into our environment, all in the interest of profits.
A 2011 report highlighted hazards at the fertilizer plant, including tens of thousands of pounds of anhydrous ammonia.
In other major news this week.
Up to 15 people are thought to have been killed and more than 160 injured after a massive explosion and fire tore through a fertiliser plant and razed dozens of homes in a small Texas town on Wednesday night.
Authorities in the town of West, north of Waco, said the blast site was being treated as a crime scene, although they stressed they had no evidence of foul play.
The blast shook the earth and rolled a huge fireball through the town at about 8pm local time, raining burning debris and shrapnel over a five-block radius.
Sergeant William Patrick Swanton of Waco police, who said the death toll was only an estimate as search and rescue operations were still taking place, added there was nothing to suggest the blast was anything other than an industrial accident.
The McLennan county sheriff, Parnell McNamara, said: “I’ve never seen anything like this. It looks like a war zone with all the debris.”
The mayor of West, Tommy Muska, said it was as if a nuclear bomb had been detonated: “Big old mushroom cloud. There are a lot of people that got hurt. There are a lot of people that will not be here tomorrow.”
Bring ‘em on. I’m a United States Marine. I’m not afraid of anyone. I’m not afraid of them,” he said. “When I’m done with them, they will know that they’ve been in a fight. I may not win, but I’m going to hurt them.
Texas landowner Michael Bishop, who won a temporary injunction against Transcanada Keystone XL Pipeline. (H/T The People’s Record)
DeLay’s attorney, Brian Wice, has said he plans to argue that no crime occurred because in 2002 money laundering in Texas only applied to funds in the form of cash and not checks. The state law was later changed to also specify checks.
A mosquito bite can kill, and this year 41 Americans have found that out the hard way as they lost their lives to the mosquito-borne disease West Nile virus.
Forty-seven of the 50 states have reported West Nile virus infections in people, birds or mosquitoes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, in Atlanta.
About 75 percent of the cases have been reported from five states in a north-south strip through the center of the country – Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Dakota – almost half of all cases have been reported from Texas.
A former North Texas high school teacher was convicted Friday and sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with five 18-year-old students at her home.
Three former students who testified Thursday said that they did not consider themselves victims and did not want to see their former English teacher prosecuted. The three were football and track athletes.
Arlington police Detective Jason Houston testified that charges were filed because ‘‘18 or not, it’s a crime’’ for a teacher to have sex with her students.
A former San Antonio Park Police officer was sentenced to four years in prison Thursday, nearly five years after he was accused of molesting a teen and giving her a sexually transmitted disease.
The victim, now 21, said she was repeatedly molested by [Officer] Rodriguez for two years starting when she was 14. She tested positive for the same strain of genital herpes that Rodriguez has, according to court documents.
If you’re a cop and you sexually assault a kid in Texas, you will serve less time behind bars than if you are a woman who has consensual sex with adults; you’re better off having a badge and a rape conviction than a vagina and consent. In summary: America.
Texas A&M shooting leaves three dead, including shooter
August 14, 2012
The shooting that took the lives of three people began Monday afternoon when a county law enforcement official arrived at the home of Thomas Alton Caffall to serve an eviction notice.
Caffall, 35, allegedly opened fire on County Constable Brian Bachmann, 41. Shots were exchanged, leaving Bachmann, Caffall and another man dead near the campus of Texas A&M University.
Just after noon, College Station police began fielding frantic 911 calls about gunfire in the neighborhood near the university’s football stadium. Responding officers found Brazos County Constable Brian Bachmann shot on the lawn of the house.
For nearly 30 minutes, police exchanged shots with Caffall as a neighbor, a former Army medic, waited with frustration for the all-clear so he could tend to the injured constable.
Bachmann, a police instructor, one-time Officer of the Year and a married father of two, had been mortally wounded. So was Chris Northcliff, 43, of College Station, who was outside and apparently caught up in the gunfire.
Caffall too was shot and later died at a hospital.
Police wouldn’t speculate on what sparked the shooting and it wasn’t immediately clear who shot whom.
“We’re trying to make some sense of this,” College Station Assistant Police Chief Scott McCollum said.
Just a bit of context: The A&M shooting is the third major US shooting in less than a month.
268: people shot in the United States every day.
97,820: people shot in the United States every year.
The state’s response has been to claim that while Wilson may be mentally retarded, he’s not mentally retarded enough not to be executed.
Texas’ next dubious execution