One of the tools the federal government uses to carry out public policy is regulatory agencies that create and enforce regulations according to authority provided by Congress that primarily protect the nation and its people. Republicans hate regulations and work to eliminate them as part of their “get government out of the way” agenda to allow big business to operate without restrictions regardless regulations’ purpose of protecting the public. It is safe to say Republicans never saw a regulation they did not hate with a passion, and their corporate supporters translate Republican anti-regulatory bent as implied consent to ignore, and when possible, obfuscate accountability by concealing information that jeopardizes the safety of labor, the community, and security of the United States.
Last week a devastating fertilizer plant explosion that claimed the lives of at least 14 people and leveled the surrounding community was overshadowed by the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing, even though more people were killed and injured in Texas. The Texas explosion failed to garner national public attention because compared to a terror attack, it was just an accident, but the plant’s owners deliberately concealed information from the Department of Homeland Security that may have prevented the accident as well as a future terror attack because the company refused to follow regulatory protocol.
Most of the news regarding the West Fertilizer explosion centered on Texas Governor Rick Perry and freshman Senator Ted Cruz’s request for federal disaster relief after decrying the waste of federal dollars assisting other parts of the country. However, there were a few reports the company was cited for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit in 2006 after a complaint of a strong ammonia smell that was reported as being “very bad” prior to the massive explosion; it turns out the disaster was a result of deliberate malfeasance and non-existent regulatory oversight.
West Fertilizer had not been inspected in the past five years, and in fact only six Texas fertilizer plants were inspected in that time in part because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is understaffed due to Republican’s habit of cutting regulatory agencies to “get government out of the way” that in West Fertilizer’s case posed a possible threat to national security. Republican’s austerity and sequester cuts hit regulatory agencies especially hard, and OSHA is slated to cut 8.2% of its staff and make at least 1,200 fewer workplace safety inspections this year. The Republican budget sought to reduce funding to OSHA’s budget by $99 million while slashing other workplace protection agencies as part of their “getting government out of the way” crusade. If OSHA had made regular inspections of the fertilizer plant, safety precautions and Department of Homeland Security planning may have prevented the explosion.
According to Department of Homeland Security rules, fertilizer plants and storage depots are required to report when they hold 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate because it can be used in bomb making, but filings with the Texas Department of State Health Services were not shared with DHS showing that West Fertilizer had 270 tons of ammonium nitrate last year, or 1350 times (540,000 lbs) more than the amount the company was required to report to DHS. According to pentagon explosives experts, a 270-ton ammonium nitrate blast would dwarf any non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal, and was more than 100 times the weight of the ammonium nitrate used in the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 and injured over 800. West Fertilizer previously convinced Texas regulators that any accident at the facility would not be large enough to cause an explosion, and a self-filed risk management plan in 2011 failed to mention the presence of ammonium nitrate at the site.
By not informing the DHS of potentially explosive fertilizer as required, the principal regulator (DHS) of a bomb making ingredient (ammonium nitrate) was unaware of any danger there. According to the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), “This manufacturer was willfully off the grid. This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.” Republicans claim regulations are unnecessary because businesses self-regulate, inspect, and report something like ammonium nitrate and other volatile chemicals to regulatory agencies and departments such as DHS, but West Fertilizer rejected DHS regulations that would have allowed Homeland Security to measure risks, and devise security and safety plans based on “self-reporting.” West Fertilizer was not regulated, or monitored, by the DHS under CFAT standards designed to prevent terrorists from sabotaging sites and to prevent explosive chemicals from falling into terrorist’s hands, but the agency never received any so-called “top-screen” report.
DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said his agency focuses “specifically on enhancing security to reduce the risk of terrorism at certain high-risk chemical facilities, but because they failed to report the explosive chemicals, West Fertilizer facility is not regulated under the CFATS program and it shows that the enforcement routine has to be more robust, on local, state and federal levels.” Another expert, Sam Mannan, director of process safety center at Texas A&M University said “If information is not shared with agencies, which appears to have happened here, then the regulations won’t work” and it informs that Republican’s favorite policy of self-reporting and regulating does not work, and is another example that the GOP’s deregulation efforts created another devastating tragedy. For the record, the owners of West TX Fertilizer, a privately owned company, donated to Rick Perry’s campaign for governor and Perry has been a staunch advocate for deregulation to “get government out of the way” and regularly boasts Texas’ “business friendly” environment that led to the deaths of 14 and injuries to over 200 Texans.
The West Fertilizer explosion is indicative of the failure of the entire regulatory apparatus that is in the hands of corporations benefitting from Republican deregulation that contributed to three major accidents (at least) since 2010. The West Virginia mine explosion, BP oil platform explosion, and now West Fertilizer explosion were all the result of allowing companies to self-regulate and self-report their activities that are creating a dangerous corporate free-for-all in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security cannot protect Americans from terror attacks if companies holding bomb-making materials have free rein to conceal tons of hazardous explosives that can be stolen and sold to criminals intent on killing Americans. It is bad enough a dangerous factory and explosive chemical producer was allowed to build and hold inordinate amounts of dangerous materials in close proximity to a school, hospital, and nursing home, but by deliberately concealing the dangerous explosives from the DHS, the company eliminated the public’s only protection against a disaster whether it was an accident or terrorists.
Regulations exist for a reason and despite Republican claims, they are not to strangle the business community or attacks on capitalism. Whether they are for the workplace, public health, or economic stability, Republicans are intent on eliminating regulations, and when they are unable to eradicate them, they either weaken them or cut funding for regulators who are often the public’s only protection from unscrupulous corporations. It is no wonder West Fertilizer felt comfortable concealing enough dangerous chemicals to blow up a city, because regardless the risk and damage they eventually caused, they can be confident Republicans will protect them from accountability, and with a Republican governor and two Republican Senators, there is little doubt they will get nothing more than a slap on the wrist while Republicans plot to cut more funding from agencies that avert disasters and possibly prevent a future terror attack. Although the fertilizer plant was destroyed, there is reason to be concerned because although DHS now knows West Fertilizer held tons of explosive chemicals, they will never know how much burned, or how much was sold to criminals.