(Article changed on April 20, 2013 at 15:06)
(Article changed on April 19, 2013 at 09:44)
By Dave Lindorff
The way I see it, we had two acts of terrorism in the US this week. The first took place at the end of the historic Boston Marathon, when two bombs went off near the finish line, killing three and seriously injuring dozens of runners and spectators. The second happened a couple days later in the town of West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant blew up, incinerating or otherwise killing at least 15, and injuring at least 150 people, and probably more as the search for the dead and the injured continues.
It's pretty clear that the Boston Marathon bombing was an act of terrorism, with police making arrests and having killed one of the two suspects who had earlier been captured on film and video at the scene of the bombings.
The villains in the West Fertilizer Co. explosion can be much more easily identified: the managers and owners of the plant.
West Fertilizer was built starting back in 1962 in the middle of the small town of West, TX, a community founded in the 19th century and named after the first local postmaster, T.M. West. It makes no sense, of course, to locate such a facility that uses highly toxic anhydrous ammonia as a primary feed stock (a compound that burns the lungs and kills on contact, and that, because it must be stored under pressure, is highly prone to leaks and explosive releases), and one that makes as its main product ammonium nitrate fertilizer, around lots of people. Ammonium nitrate, recall, is the highly explosive compound favored by truck bombers like the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. It was the fertilizer, vast quantities of which were stored at the West Fertilizer plant site, which caused the colossal explosion that leveled much of the town of West.
Building such a dangerous facility in the midst of a residential and business area, and allowing homes, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and playgrounds to be built alongside it, is the result of a corrupt process that is commonplace in towns and cities across America, where business leaders routinely have their way with local planning and zoning commissions, safety inspectors and city councils. Businesses small and large also have their way with state and federal safety and health inspectors too.
We know that the EPA, back in 2006, cited West Fertilizer for not having an emergency risk management plan. That is, a dangerous and explosion-prone plant that was using a hazardous chemical in large quantities, and that was storing highly explosive material also in large quantities, had made little or no effort to assess the risks of what it was doing. Indeed, it has been reported that the company had assured the EPA, in response to the complaint, that there was "no risk" of an explosion at the plant! An AP article reports that the company, five years after being cited for lacking a risk plan, did file one with the EPA, but that the report claimed the company "...was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant."
Yet the AP article goes on to say that "State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality."
The article says:
"Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant's ammonia tanks weren't properly labeled."
Then the article gets to the crux of the problem, saying:
"The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators."
Aside from the ridiculousness of West Fertilizer management's reported assertion that the plant wasn't handling flammable materials (a claim that the current deadly catastrophe has demonstrably proved was false), consider the incredible response of the EPA to this incredible assertion: The agency, emasculated by the Bush administration, and still a joke under the Obama administration, levied a pathetically small fine, but did nothing to shut the operation down until it put in place critical safety measures.