Nel's New Day

May 3, 2013

U.S. Gives Domestic Crime a Pass

Over 500 people have died because a Bangladeshi building housing a garment industry collapsed, three friends of the Boston bomber are being questioned, questions about chemical weapons in Syria and an Israeli attack on the country might cause the United States to go back into another Middle East “conflict,” and the government is still allowing people who sit in Virginia and blow up so-called “terrorists” 6000 miles away with drones. But what’s happening with the situation in West, Texas? West what, people might ask, because the media has almost nothing about the chemical explosion that killed at least 15 people, wounded another 200+, and caused many in the small town to be homeless.

The country is pretty much ignoring an explosion that left a crater 93 feet wide and ten feet deep, an explosion which scattered debris as far away as two miles, an explosion that could easily be replicated across the United States again and again.

File picture shows the burning remains of a fertilizer plant after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas

Currently 80 investigators from 28 governmental agencies are scrutinizing 15 acres surrounding the compound, and they have interviewed more than 370 witnesses and received more than 200 leads. Investigators claim that everyone’s cooperating, but they can’t find out what kinds of chemicals were stored at the plant or how much of these unknown chemicals were on site at the time of the explosion.

There were reports of theft and sabotage at the plant from people who wanted the chemicals to make methamphetamine, starting in June 2001 when 150 pounds of anhydrous ammonia were stolen from storage tanks three nights in a row. The security system installed a few years ago didn’t seem to be much of a deterrent; a caller reported in October 2012 that the smell was “so strong it can burn your eyes.” Cody Dragoo, an employee often sent after hours to shut leaking valves and look into break-ins, said that the valve had been tampered with. Dragoo was killed in the explosion.

These thefts are common in McLennan County, said McLennan County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthon, who was hired in January. He described security at the plant as clearly lax with no fencing on the perimeter, no burglar alarms, and no security guards. “It was a hometown-like situation. Everybody trusts everybody,” Cawthron said.

Gary Johnson, a former aerospace engineer, has identified the real threat.

“[N]ow something new must be considered: terrorists breaking into agricultural supply businesses at night with blasting caps and dynamite, deliberately using that shock sensitivity to start explosions. No fire is required. This is a lot more sinister and dangerous than druggies breaking in to steal ammonia to make meth.”

The Texas fertilizer plant had claimed an arcane exemption to avoid workplace inspections and safety requirements by entering a “streamlined prevention program” with environmental regulators. The “retail exemption” gives an almost free pass to facilities storing and blending fertilizer for sale to people, usually farmers. Retail sales must be at least half the sales, but OSHA doesn’t check until it inspects the site—which it doesn’t because it’s exempt.

A legislative rider to the law makes sites with fewer than 10 employees in industries with low reported injury rates exempt from inspections. The West plant had seven employees, and no one complained for fear of losing a job. Normally the excessive amount of anhydrous ammonia stored at the plant should have required extensive preventive measures and accident-response plans, but the exempt status disallowed this.

No one knows how many other facilities are claiming the same bogus exemptions, but there could be a huge number. Bryan Haywood, an Ohio consultant who advises companies on the safe use of dangerous substances, said, “A lot of these businesses like in West, Texas, they’re everywhere. They’re in every small farming community in the country.”

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has proposed legislation requiring chemical facilities to adopt technologies to reduce the impact of an accident or terrorist attack. The Congressional Research Service reviewed all chemical facilities that submit risk management plans to the EPA. Facilities processing at least one of 140 specific chemicals above certain thresholds must explain how the population within a certain radius of its plant would be affected by “a worse-case scenario release from a single chemical process.”

Almost 7,000 facilities report that they post a risk to populations greater than 1,000, with 90 that could impact more than 1 million people in a worst-case scenario. There are 4,425 that would likely impact a population similar to the town of West, between 1,000 and 9,999 people. West Fertilizer Co. wasn’t included because it told the EPA that it didn’t pose a risk of fire or explosion. The company claimed that its worst-case scenario was a 10-minute release of ammonia gas or a leak from a broken hose.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) responded to Lautenberg’s bill by introducing his own bill that would bar the EPA from imposing obligations on companies to use a particular approach to making or storing chemicals.

National news didn’t report on an explosion earlier this week at the Marathon Detroit Refinery in Melvindale, probably because of no injuries. With 300 employers and another 300 to 400 contractors, the 83-year-old refinery is the largest crude oil refinery in the Midwest and the fourth-largest refiner in the country. Its $2.2 billion expansion in 2012 to process additional crude oil, mostly imported from Canada, added to poor environmental conditions in the area.

A study from University of Michigan environmental scientists show that the area is the most polluted in Detroit, which in turn is the most polluted area in Michigan and one of the worst polluted cities nationwide. Residents commonly suffer from asthma, leukemia, sarcoidosis, and multiple types of cancers. Metal dust has fallen on the neighborhood, and a dark cloud overhead is accompanied by constant foul odors and acrid smells, possibly from the aggregate pollution from heavy industry.

The state budget for regulation shrank 75 percent between 2002 and 2010. . These effects are not just from Marathon, but the aggregate pollution from heavy industry in the area.

About the Detroit explosion, a firefighter said, “In the worst case scenario, if the entire plant went up, it could mean that everything within 10 miles would be gone too. This was a near miss.” He explained that trained fire safety specialists at the refinery had retired and been replaced with first responders. He added that Detroit firefighters had less ability to respond because of budget cuts, staff reductions, permanent or rotating closure of stations, and shortage of equipment including foam to put out chemical fires.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has declared an investigation into the explosion in West, Texas, and promises a hearing. She sent letters to the Chemical Safety Board and the EPA, demanding answers about the agencies’ actions—and inactions—before the explosion. One answer she wants is why the EPA does not investigate the amount of ammonium nitrate stored at chemical plants.

The EPA’s lack of regulation for the explosive chemical comes from lobby opposition by the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute, to the tune of almost $20 million in the past 15 years. Big business paid $51 million to defeat a 2009 bill to tighten security standards for chemical factories, fertilizer depots, and water-treatment plants. The Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau labeled it a “key vote” for the year. The industry gave $34 million to political candidates in the last three elections, two-thirds of them Republicans, and is declaring opposition to new regulations after the explosion in Texas.

Despite the obsession of people in the United States about disasters in other parts of the world or caused by immigrants, they ignore those created within the country by native-born citizens, always thinking of them as “accidents.” The April 2010 coal mine disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia was caused by the company’s “unlawful policies and practices,” according to the Department of Labor. Yet the Justice Department made a “non-prosecution” agreement with the owner. One reason — our two tier criminal justice system. The Ralph Lauren Corporation also got a non-prosecution agreement after the company bribed its way into Argentinian markets.

After the Boston bombing, President Obama said that “any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.” There has been nothing said about “the full weight of justice” for the West, Texas debacle. Because voters of the United States allow corporations to control the government, “accidents” such as the explosion in West, Texas, will continue unpunished while people force the government to obsess about potential terrorism.

April 24, 2013

No Outrage for Texas Explosion

If you were anywhere near a television set or newspaper last week, you would know that two young men set off a bomb at the Boston marathon and that they had been captured, one dead and the other in the hospital. The news about the three deaths caused by the bombs and the injured people dominated the media.

But fewer people knew about the 15 deaths and 200+ injuries in a little-known Texas town after an explosion at a fertilizer plant a week ago today. Yet the media largely ignored the explosion after the first day.

West Fertilizer’s function is to store, distribute, and blend fertilizer for farmers. The state has as many as 1,150 of these plants, all so small that they have few regulations.  Owned by Donald Adair, the plant had no sprinklers and no water deluge systems. There were no fire walls. With no fire suppression systems, there was no way to stop the fire after it started. It is also the reason that so many first responders died in the explosion.

The plant did have 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, the chemical used to build the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995 that killed 168 people, and 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, considered flammable and potentially toxic. 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. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave the plant a permit for handling anhydrous ammonia without checking to see if the company added the necessary safety equipment.

Last summer the plant was fined $5,250 for improperly labeling storage tanks and transferring chemicals without a security plan. Adair said that the plant had corrected the problems. The year before that, it was cited for not having an up-to-date risk management plan. The submitted plan said that the plant didn’t have any flammable substances. A citation in 2006 was issued after the complaint of a strong ammonia smell, the same claim as the night of the explosion.

The year 1985 was the last visit from the Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) inspection. It found one serious and two additional violations; the company was fined $30. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is so understaffed that a plant like West Fertilizer might expect a state inspection every 129 years. OSHA has 2,000 inspectors to cover the 7,000,000 workplaces in the United States. Yet the House 2011 budget, supported by Texas GOP representatives, would have reduced OSHA by $99 million.

Even seven years ago, Texas’ environmental agency knew that the plant was handling 2,400 tons a year of the explosive ammonium nitrate, deadly when heated to extreme temperatures or exposed to shock. Nobody seems responsible, however, for ensuring the safety of the people at and around the plant. The state environmental agency just makes sure that the blast doesn’t spread pollution; the federal pipeline agency governs only transportation, not storage; and the state chemist’s office, which came ten days before the explosion, has no legal authority in the arena of fire or explosive safety.

There are no uniform federal rules for ammonium storage. Fire safety experts have best practices for protection, but the company did not follow any simple safeguards such as storing the ammonium nitrate far away from other buildings and fire sources as well as installing a water system to cool the fertilizer before it could explode. Texas has learned nothing from the 1947 ammonium nitrate explosion at Texas City that killed at least 581 people.

West beforeEven without any inspections, common sense zoning might have stopped some of the carnage. Two of the three schools in the town were across the street from the plant. On the other side of the plant was a child’s playground and, behind that, a retirement home. The explosion could have very easily happened during school hours. Two months ago, a controlled brush burn near the plant evacuated the middle school. Recently West Fertilizer burned wooden pallets near the stockpiled explosive material on the site. [Photo: West (TX) before explosion)


More photos are available here.

West afterThe explosion caused severe fire damage to the middle school and leveled an apartment building next to the plant as was a nursing home nearby. And of course, there were the 50 to 60 homes destroyed in this town of less than 3,000. The cost is estimated at over $100 million. [Photo: West (TX) after explosion]

All the federal representatives for the West (TX) area—Rep. Bill Flores, John Cornyn, and Ted Cruz—want federal aid for their suffering constituents. All three of them, Republicans, may have forgotten that they all voted against sending any aid to those suffering from Superstorm Sandy unless it was matched by federal cuts.

There is one regulation that Donald Adair and West Fertilizer ignored. Any fertilizer plants and depots holding 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate are required to inform the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, this one little plant in western Texas stored 270 tons of it last year, 1,350 times more than 400 pounds that should have been reported to DHS.

The Texas agency is not required to share this information with the DHS, and the company ignored the reporting requirement. Ammonium nitrate is a substance highly useful in making bombs, yet no one in Congress has evidenced any concern about what happened in West, Texas, and what this means for the safety of the country. At this time, companies are responsible to self-report the quantities of volatile chemicals that they have. Without doing this, facilities cannot be monitored in order to prevent sabotage and keep chemicals from falling into criminal hands.

Eighteen years ago, Timothy McVeigh and others put 2 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with racing fuel into a truck and blew it up in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City. Eighteen years later, they could still buy the same substance.

The media and Congress continue to rage at the 19-year-old young man and his connection to Muslims while exhibiting no outrage about the death and destruction in Texas and no concern about easily available chemicals for making bombs. At the same time, conservative lawmakers threaten the country’s security by shrinking budgets, opposing regulations, and fighting agency connections.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S. His “weapon” was a couple of pressure cookers, some gunpowder, and a batch of fireworks. Yet the media ignores a man who concealed the fact from the federal government that his company stores a massive amount of chemicals that killed at least 15 people, injured at least another 200, and caused more than $100 million of property damage.

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