Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Once Again, This is What a Regulation-Free Universe Looks Like

I used this headline (more or less) a few months ago, in regards to the West Virginia toxic spill that left residents of Charleston without potable water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, showering, etc., for days -- and still has them a little jittery (full post, here). Sad to say, the headline is good for lots of occasions.

Just a few days after the one-year anniversary of the explosion of a West, TX fertilizer plant that leveled the plant, destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, wounded hundreds of people, and killed 14 (ten of whom were volunteer firefighters, there to try to contain the damage), the US Chemical Safety Board has released the preliminary findings of its investigation.

Least surprising headline of the day, courtesy of the New York Times, article by Manny Fernandez: "Lax Oversight Cited as Factor in Deadly Blast at Texas Plant".

Ya think?!?

Per the CSB: "The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it."

I found this statement shocking: "The CSB’s investigation found that at the state level, there is no fire code and in fact counties under a certain population are prohibited from having them." (emphasis added)

Fernandez wrote:
White pellets of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer sold to farmers in the area, were stored in a wooden warehouse in wooden bins, inside a building without a sprinkler system. No federal regulations exist preventing a company from storing the chemical in such a way. The volunteer firefighters who rushed to the plant to fight a fire that broke out there before the explosion were largely unaware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate, and a local emergency planning committee had not adopted an emergency response plan for the plant. Even if they had, Texas has no statewide fire code that would have established a minimum set of standards.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 50 tons of ammonium nitrate were being stored at the warehouse, and another 100 tons was stored in a rail car next to the plant.

Fernandez also noted, laconically, that Texas officials -- who often trumpet their "regulation-free" environment as great for business -- were "muted" in their response to the CSB findings.

The CSB is not authorized to impose fines, but can make recommendations to (among other groups) regulatory agencies like OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

I'm not expecting much from either OSHA or the EPA, and even if a fine is assessed, I predict that it will be absorbed as a "cost of doing business" (April 2013 post on the non-effect of under-punishment, here). Because who cares that people will die?

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