The residents of West, Texas are recovering from a horrific industrial accident that took the lives of at least 14 people, many of whom were volunteer firefighters, and wounded hundreds of others, some severely. Most tragically of all, the blast, heard from up to 40 miles away, could have been prevented entirely had proper safety precautions been in place at the plant. The fact that they weren’t, and government agencies failed to act, is a simultaneous indictment of valuing money over people and the critical need for reform at agencies charged with the safety of workers and the environment.
This timeline of inspections, violations and fines at the West Fertilizer Company will shock you:
1985: Last Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) inspection.
OSHA, the government agency charged with looking out for worker health, last visited the plant almost 30 years ago. One serious and two additional violations, for which the company was fined a whopping $30, were found during the site visit. Why the long delay? The United States has over seven million workplaces, and OSHA’s inspectors, of which there are only 2,000 to cover the whole country, can’t keep up due to a lack of training and funding.
The sequester has only made this worse, by limiting accessibility of critically-needed funds for hiring and training inspectors, holding more random inspections and keeping workplaces safe. Consequently, OSHA tends to inspect only when there’s been a complaint, which means that a worker has to be brave enough to file one. Even with anonymous whistleblower laws to protect them, workers are well aware of the risks of reprisal.
2006: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) site visit and fines.
After receiving complaints about air quality at the site, government representatives noted that the company lacked permits for its two 12,000 gallon anhydrous ammonia (a flammable and toxic substance) tanks as well as for loading and storing dry components of fertilizer. A notice was issued to ask the company to get into compliance with the permits, which it did.
The EPA also expressed concerns about the West Fertilizer Company’s Risk-Management Program (RMP), required for such facilities. These concerns included worries that the plan was outdated, and that it had no documentation regarding what it intended to do in order to address safety concerns. A new plan was filed five years later to get in compliance. Amazingly, the plant claimed that it didn’t have any explosive or flammable materials on site, and didn’t list fire among potential safety risks in the workplace.
2007: Final TCEQ site visit.
The final followup visit regarding the earlier air quality complaint was also the last time workplace safety officials came to the site. Due to the plant’s comparatively small size, it was rarely inspected, with regulators focusing on getting inspectors to larger facilities and those that received complaints. It’s possible that TCEQ inspectors might not have visited the site at all in 2006 and 2007 if a member of the public hadn’t complained about an unpleasant odor.
2012: U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fine.
Last year, the company was fined $10,000 for failing to have an adequate security plan in place for the transportation of hazardous materials. As is common with government fines, the amount was negotiated down by almost half: it paid just $5,250 after agreeing that it would embark on a course of corrective action to address the problem.
2013: Office of the State Chemist site visit.
Texas’ Office of the State Chemist focuses on materials blending, labeling and purity. Inspectors found no problems during a site visit in April, but they also weren’t looking for workplace safety violations, of which they undoubtedly would have found many. The fact that regulators visited the site 10 days before the explosion and didn’t notice anything that might draw concern highlights how harried many officials are as they work quickly to get from site to site, focusing on the obvious facets of their jobs without taking a step back. Chemists inspecting the plant should have been wondering about the conditions there.
Think this is bad? Ramit Plushnick-Masti and Jack Gillum, reporting for the AP, note that: “There were no sprinklers. No firewalls. No water deluge systems.” Without such basic fire suppression systems, once the plant started to go, it was almost unstoppable, and the fire spread quickly through the facility without any walls to keep it in check. This made the accident even more devastating than it could have been, and endangered the lives of first responders who arrived on scene to help victims.
An investigation is ongoing into the circumstances of this terrible event, but the outcome of that investigation is already obvious: overworked government agencies failed to catch a serious safety problem, and negligence on the part of a factory owner resulted in the development of hazardous conditions.
The question is: will he be held accountable, and will Congress take a critically-needed lesson here and increase funding to government agencies charged with our safety?
Photo credit: Channel Four: The Bay Area's News Station