Remember the West, Texas explosion that killed 15 people, injured hundreds more and devastated an entire community? Given that about 150 Texas businesses similarly house massive amounts of highly explosive fertilizer, Texas fire departments have taken it upon themselves to help prevent a similar disaster from happening again. However, some businesses are refusing to consent to an inspection and — unfortunately — the law is on the businesses’ side.
Although the precise cause of the West plant’s explosion has still not been determined, that hasn’t dissuaded local fire officials from being proactive in verifying that other such facilities aren’t a danger. Thus far, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy and staff have tried to examine around 60 businesses with large fertilizer supplies, but nearly 10% of such operations have flat out refused the inspection.
Connealy expresses concern over the lack of cooperation, but overly generously concedes, “They may have a very good reason.”
We may never know the businesses’ reasons, however, since they can legally deny entry to the state fire marshal. Shockingly, Texas has no state fire codes, thus preventing officials from making such an inspection. If that doesn’t sound awful enough, Texas actually prohibits 70% of its counties from having fire codes. The wisdom — to use the term lightly — behind that decision is that maintaining fire codes is expensive.
As Firehouse points out, it is mandatory for every motorist to obtain liability insurance, but facilities that house tons of explosive materials like the plant in West are not required to have liability policies. In fact, the only insurance the company had was a basic $1 million policy, hardly sufficient to cover the estimate $135 million in damage.
If the plants are denying entrance to the fire marshal while waiting for the “proper” authorities to arrive, they better not hold their collective breaths. While there are federal government officials that can legally inspect these plants, a lack of funds prevents such examinations from occurring on even a semi-regular basis. If you’ll recall, the last time West’s facilities were checked was six years before the blast. Although it was found to have major safety violations, instead of being re-inspected, the business was instead fined $2,300.
Perhaps if they raised the fine for million dollar businesses with such egregious infractions, the government could afford to have more inspections. Failing that, they could just permit fire departments with an interest in public safety to verify that their buildings are not about to go up in flames… or not, apparently. After all, America loves big business, it trusts big business, and the free market will protect the people better than any government employees would!
Heck, even the elected officials agree with that sentiment. State Representative Joe Pickett (D) says, “I would say that any resistance is more just fear of the unknown than anybody trying to hide or cover up some situation like West.” How optimistic! He adds, “I would believe if somebody thought they had something that was really dangerous, the only reason they would say no was to get it fixed that day.” Ah, but not the day before the fire marshal arrived. Surely these types of inspections – which incidentally should not be allowed — have no impact on how seriously the companies take matters of safety.
In summary, America will spend hundreds of billions on wars that are in the name of preventing future terrorist bombings, but if a million-dollar company is willfully reckless and accidentally blows people up, there is no money to address this issue. If anything, the government will pass counterintuitive laws that protect the businesses’ right to secretly engage in risky behavior, public safety be damned.
Score another point for corporate America! Oh, and try to stay safe, Texas!
Photo Credit: A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive