Saturday, April 20, 2013

What happens when job-creating businesses are not hampered by strangling government regulation

Food for thought?  —Jeff Weintraub
=> Vanity Fair (4/18/2013):
[Wednesday evening] a fertilizer plant in a Texan town called West caught fire and exploded, “killing as many as 15 people and injuring more than 160 others, laying waste to buildings and potentially sending toxic fumes into the air,” The New York Times reports. Among the badly damaged buildings, a nursing home; among those already pronounced dead, two E.M.S. rescuers.

Videos of the explosion and descriptions from West's nearby residents are equally unbelievable and upsetting. An example of the latter, per CNN:
“It, like, picked you up,” a woman told CNN affiliate WFAA. “It just took your breath away. And then it dropped you and it exploded everything around you... It was like a suction and then it just blew it all out. You could feel everything. You could feel it on your skin, your hair was being blown. It was crazy.”

She managed to cover one of her children, she said, and “grabbed my little one and dove through a door. It was chaos. All my windows blew out, my doors off the hinges. All I had were my keys in my hand and I just threw the dog, everybody in the car and we took off.”
=>   Fox News (4/20/2013):
[R]esidents attempt to recover some semblance of normalcy in the 2,800-person town of West, Texas. "The devastation is immense," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott of West, Texas, while another official added, "There are homes flattened. Part of that community is gone."

The explosion occurred around 8 p.m.  Wednesday and could be heard as far away as Waxahachie, a town 45 miles north. Flames spiraled into the evening sky and rained burning embers, shrapnel and debris down on frightened residents.

A member of the West City Council, Al Vanek, said a four-block area around the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Plant was "totally decimated."

The Dallas Morning News reported that among the dead were at least 11 emergency responders, three of whom were training at the time of the blast to become EMTs. They valiantly rushed to the growing smoke plume that could be seen for miles around the small community of 2,800 people. It would be, as the paper said, "their last call." [....]

Other witnesses compared the scene to that of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and authorities said the plant made materials similar to that used to fuel the bomb that tore apart that city's Murrah Federal Building.

In addition to the dead, approximately 200 people were injured by the blast. [....]
=>  Talking Points Memo (4/19/2013):
Sixty people remain unaccounted for after a massive fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas on Wednesday, according to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

"We still don't know the extent of their loss," Cornyn said in a news conference Friday, according to the Wall Street Journal. [....]
=> ThinkProgress (4/19/2013):
The Associated Press is reporting that the fertilizer plant in West, Texas that exploded on Wednesday night hasn’t been inspected by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) since 1985, nearly three decades ago. It was issued a fine on its last inspection for a violation related to storing ammonia:
Records reviewed by The Associated Press show that OSHA issued the West Chemical & Fertilizer Co., as the plant was called at the time, a $30 fine for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia.

OSHA cited the plant for four other serious violations of respiratory protection standards but did not issue fines. The maximum fine for a serious violation was $1,000.
The plant was also cited for failing to get a permit in 2006 after a complaint of a strong ammonia smell. That smell was reported to be “very bad” on the night of the explosion. Storing ammonia at fertilizer plants can be very hazardous; in 2008, the Center for American Progress found a fertilizer plant that stored millions of pounds of anhydrous ammonia in Pasadena, Texas to be among the most hazardous chemical facilities in the country, with more than 3 million people living in range of a worst-case ammonia gas release.

A day after the explosion in West, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report documenting a widespread lack of workplace inspections by state OSHA programs. After surveying 22 state-run programs, it found that the agencies had problems with hiring and retaining inspectors, in part due to low pay. State budget cuts have had a big impact, leading to funding problems, and the federal agency often hasn’t taken over state plans because its own budget is too tight. This has meant that a workplace only gets a visit from OSHA inspectors every 99 years on average, with some state programs even worse. In Texas, a plant can only expect an inspection every 126 years.

The report led Rep. George Miller (D-CA) to introduce a bill to give the federal agency more authority to intervene in state plans and strengthen fines and prosecutions against violations. The lack of OSHA inspections contributes to a high rate of workplace deaths in the U.S., with over 4,500 in 2010 alone. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already stated its opposition to Democrats’ efforts to strengthen workplace safety regulations.


The plant in West was inspected in 2011 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which issued a fine of $10,100 for missing placards and “not having a security plan” in violation of Hazardous Materials Regulations. A compromise was reached in 2012 after corrective actions were taken, which included the plant admitting to the violations and paying a lowered penalty of $5,250.