Sunday, April 28, 2013

This Is How Sick It Can Get

That's a political cartoon that was printed in the Sacramento Bee after the fertilizer plant explosion in the town of West (No, I won't link to that paper, and the image comes from another site---we won't be rewarding the Bee with hits so they can charge more for advertising).

It doesn't stop there.  The explosion occurred as Governor Rick Perry was touring Illinois to convince businesses to move from that State to Texas.  This was the lead paragraph in an Editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on April 23:

Laugh all you want about Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign to recruit businesses from Illinois to the Lone Star State. We don't know whether Perry will succeed in prompting a commercial exodus from the Land of Lincoln to the land of droughts, fire ants and deadly fertilizer-plant explosions. Yet Perry's stunt is another serious wake-up call for Illinois politicians and the inhospitable business climate they've created.
This appeared in the Daily Kos:

The cause of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed at least 14 and injured 200, as well as destroying dozens of buildings, is still unknown and the damage is still being assessed, but even without the full story known, plenty of toxic Texas politics has been on display. Texas politicians are eager for the federal disaster aid they voted against when it was New York and New Jersey that needed it in the wake of Sandy, and the zoning laws that let a school and homes be right across the street from a fertilizer plant should be a scandal. And it's become clear that, whatever the immediate cause of the explosion, the plant was a menace to its workers and the town, enabled by Texas-style weak regulation and oversight.
The New York Times writes this in a Op-Ed, which then reaches back to 1947 to find a similar incident:

The explosion in West, which killed at least 14 people, is now entering a dark pantheon of events in Texas, ones that will surely lead to debates in the state about government regulation and oversight — or the lack thereof. About what “public safety” really means, implies, entails. About Texas’ passionate history of pushing back at what some see as big-government intrusion — a trend that traces back to the regulation-free days of wildcatting in the oil patches.

The implication, of course, is that the business climate in Texas is responsible for the deaths and destruction.  The same folks who will stand on the bodies of dead children to achieve a political goal they've been after for 60 years , which would not have prevented those deaths now stand on the bodies of dead firemen to denounce a political philosophy they oppose.  These are, after all, the same people who, in the hours after the Boston Marathon Bombing, wanted you to think that the Tea Party Did It.

The cartoonist who penned that sick monstrosity above, posted a defense of it a couple days later.

The Texas chemical plant had not been inspected by the state of Texas since 2006. That's seven years ago. You may have read in the news that Gov. Perry, during his business recruiting trips to California and Illinois, generally described his state as free from high taxes and burdensome regulation. One of the burdensome regulations he neglected to mention was the fact that his state hadn't really gotten around to checking out that fertilizer plant. Many Texas cities have little or no zoning, resulting in homes being permitted next to sparely inspected businesses that store explosive chemicals.

He then went on to say, and I'm not kidding:

When I have to come up with these ideas, I can assure you that I am not really deliberately trying to be tasteless. I am not. What I am trying to do is make readers think about an issue in a striking way. I seem to have succeeded in this cartoon, one way or the other.

The question is whether it is tasteless or not.

My answer, respectfully, is that it isn't.

 In other words, as long as your politics is correct, its OK to be politically incorrect.

Concern over lax regulations is legitimate, although it should be pointed out right now that the nobody in the State of Texas advocates the reduction or elimination of Safety Regulations. Given that everybody says that a cause for the blast has not been fixed yet (which doesn't stop them from then telling you its the politics that did it) the best place to go for answers would be someplace not as partisan as the Sacramento Bee, New York Times, Daily Kos, or the Chicago Tribune.  So, even though I live in a State that is populated by people who are "Anti-Science", lets go to Scientific American's article regarding the explosion:

Why Didn't Regulators Prevent the Texas Fertilizer Explosion?

Seven different agencies regulate fertilizer plants in Texas, but none has authority over how close they are to homes and schools.

Here's what we do know: The fertilizer plant hadn't been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1985. Its owners do not seem to have told the Department of Homeland Security that they were storing large quantities of potentially explosive fertilizer, as regulations require. And the most recent partial safety inspection of the facility in 2011 led to $5,250 in fines.

Who regulates these fertilizer plants? At least seven different state and federal agencies can regulate Texas fertilizer plants like the one in West: OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service.
It should be noted here that the Texas agencies mentioned here are charged with monitoring air quality, environmental concerns regarding discharges of toxic materials, and truth in labeling for the contents of fertilizer containers respectively.

That's because regulating the other concerns that arise from the manufacture of fertilizer is a Federal responsibility, primarily that of OSHA and the Department of Homeland Security. And that's where things get really, really scary.

A U.S. congressman and several safety experts called into question on Friday whether incomplete disclosure or regulatory gridlock may have contributed to the disaster.

"It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid," Rep. Bennie Thompson, (D-MS), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. "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."
There's more:

(CBS News) After 9/11, America realized that more than 4,000 chemical plants were sitting ducks for a terrorist attack -- tanks of lethal toxins were stored around many of our biggest cities. Five years ago, Homeland Security started a program to secure those plants. Half a billion dollars have been spent. But it turns out 90 percent of the most threatening plants have not even been inspected. Todd Keil was once in charge of this program and he told what he knows to CBS News.

"As the program stands today," Keil said, "it's not effectively protecting the American people from high-risk chemical facilities that may be vulnerable."

Keil was the assistant secretary at Homeland Security responsible for overseeing the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, known as CFATS, from late 2009 to February 2012. He said he was so concerned about problems with the program that he asked for an internal review.

The review found that after four-and-a-half years and $480 million:  
~There had not been a single inspection of a chemical plant.
~No plant has a site security plan.
~The review also found "...a catastrophic failure to ensure personal and professional accountability."

"There were administrative missteps," said Keil. "There were management missteps, and there were substantive missteps, that just led the program down a path of failure."

It should be mentioned here that DHS is also the agency that would have been responsible for keeping Tamerlan Tsarneav from coming back into this country from the bomb making lessons he took in Chechnya.

So, the last State Inspection was 6 years ago, and that's supposed to be significant, but the fact that the Federal Agency charged with workplace safety hasn't visited the site since 1985 (I can do simple math just as well as Mr. Ohlman---that's 28 years), and the Federal Agency charged with regulating explosive chemical facilities hasn't inspected 90% of the plants that hold them in the 7 years its been in existence and didn't even know that the plant was there until it blew up isn't worth mentioning.  At least that's according to the people who want you to believe that the politics of Texas is what killed those people, and that gun owners don't care about dead children, and the Tea Party is a dangerous terrorist organization that inspires people to kill children with bombs in crowded public places.

There is one government entity in Texas that does bear some responsibility and and a very great deal of shame.  That would be the City Council of West, Texas.  The plant had been in the same location in 1962.  Back then it was out in the middle of nowhere a safe distance from a sleepy small town that was at the time not much more than a wide spot in the road.  In the intervening 50 years the town grew in that direction. They allowed homes, apartments and retirement facilities to be built around the plant.  They even built a school there, citing that the ease of connecting it to existing sewer lines argued for it rather than a location further away.

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