United States: Fertiliser blast a corporate-made catastrophe

Memorial for the victims of the blast at the West Fertilizer Co facility.

The close-knit Texas town of West, population 2800, was shaken to the core, literally and symbolically, on April 17 when the West Fertilizer Co facility exploded with the force of a small earthquake. The blast killed 14 people and injured more than 200.

Today, West resembles a war zone. Up to 75 homes and buildings were destroyed, including the local high school and a 50-unit apartment complex that was reduced to a skeleton. A nursing home near the facility was also damaged ― 133 residents had to be evacuated during the explosions and fire that followed.

Later, most of the town was ordered to evacuate.

Flying shrapnel injured people as far as two miles away. The blast was so intense that the US Geological Survey registered it as comparable to a 2.1 earthquake on the Richter scale. People in towns as far as 50 miles away felt the earth tremble.

Most of the 14 people who died were volunteer firefighters who rushed to the scene after a fire broke out at the plant. The 200 people injured by the blast were rushed to nearby hospitals and makeshift facilities to have their wounds treated. Among the wounded, dozens sustained serious injuries, including broken bones, head trauma and burns.

Immediately after the explosion, ordinary people from around the area opened their homes to the victims or contributed in other ways. Emergency responders from neighbouring towns rushed to help, and volunteers from across the state asked what they could do to help clean up.

“It's been really tough,” said Megan, an employee at the local Dollar General store. “Everybody knew everybody who died. And the north side's been on complete lockdown. You can't even go there, unless you're leaving.”

The city's website says the public water infrastructure has been severely damaged and the city won't have water for one to three weeks. Much of the town is without electricity and natural gas.

But the overwhelming sentiment across the town isn't about those questions right now ― it is disbelief and mourning.

“[One of my] good friends was there at the explosion,” said Deanna, who works at the Family Dollar store. “We lost him. He was at my wedding reception. He was young; he was my age. I said, 'No! No! No! He wasn't supposed to go!'”

Ticking time bomb

Residents of West may not have been aware of the ticking time bomb waiting to explode in their community, but the owners of the facility knew that the huge inventory of chemicals held the potential for catastrophe.

Many of the details are yet to be revealed, but it seems clear that the owners and operators of West Fertilizer Co were gambling with workers' lives ― and the government agencies charged with oversight at such facilities were nowhere to be found.

Two years ago, management at West Fertilizer told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that there was no “major risk” of a fire or explosion due to ammonia stored at the plant.

As part of a risk-management plan filed with the EPA, West Fertilizer said the biggest risk would be an ammonia leak. The company acknowledged that it had no alarms, no sprinklers, no automatic shut-off valves and no firewall to isolate stockpiles of highly combustible materials from a fire that started elsewhere.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last inspected the facility in 1985, but an OSHA spokesperson said the company did not qualify for targeted inspections. This was despite receiving seven violation notices, five of them serious, in 1985.

Those citations included mishandling anhydrous ammonia and improper respiratory equipment for workers.

For these serious violations, the facility was assessed a US$30 fine. In 2006, the plant was cited for operating without a permit, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated and fined the plant $2300 after receiving a complaint of a strong, lingering smell of ammonia.

The fertiliser facility was the main business in town, and life in West was very much oriented around it. West began as a community of Czech immigrants in the 1880s and is known as the “Czech Heritage Capital of Texas”.

There are hundreds of similar facilities that store anhydrous ammonia scattered throughout farm states, including 587 in Texas alone. The plant in West had up to 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, the Texas Department of State Health Services said.

The bomb that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 used 4000 pounds of ammonium nitrate.

But West Fertilizer didn't report the amount of ammonium nitrate at its facility to the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for monitoring this chemical.

“It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” said Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

“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.”

But Congress can't place all the blame on shady management practices at West Fertilizer.

Lawmakers have systematically implemented deregulation in industry after industry, while failing to adequately fund agencies such as OSHA, the EPA and others that are supposed to inspect and enforce whatever rules and restrictions that haven't been eliminated.

OSHA is so severely understaffed that, on average, inspectors are able to inspect every workplace in the US once every 99 years. In Texas, which has even fewer inspectors than the national average, it would take 126 years for inspectors to visit every workplace.

Workers unorganised

What's more, OSHA typically inspects a business only after it receives a complaint from a worker. However, many workers are afraid to file such complaints because of retaliation by employers ― if they don't have a union to defend them, there's practically no recourse.

Texas is a “right-to-work” state, with only 5.7% of its workforce unionized in 2012 compared to 11.3% nationally, according to the US Department of Labor. This low rate of unionisation not only allows employers in Texas to pay less ― it also means workers have fewer means to challenge employers that flout safety regulations.

Mike Elk, a labour journalist for In These Times, said: “Some 4,500 [people] are killed each year in industrial accidents. And we only spend as a nation $550 million a year on workplace safety; that's half as much as we spend protecting fish and wildlife in this country ...

“Since 1970 ― since the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act ― 360,000 people have been killed on the job in accidents; there have been only 84 criminal prosecutions under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

“And the reason for that is the maximum penalty if you willfully violate safety laws and that willful violation of safety laws results in the death of a worker is $7,000.

“It costs a company $7,000 to kill a worker on the job. That's the cost of doing business if you can save money. And on top of that, the maximum [sentence] for an employer who kills a worker on the job as a result of a willful safety violation is six months in jail.”

Preventable

The nation's attention was focused on the blasts that rocked the Boston Marathon, but the explosion in West occurred with much less attention and much greater force. This blast was preventable and, in fact, was building up over a period of years.

The owners and operators of the facility are responsible for more deaths than occurred at the Marathon, but there has been no manhunt to apprehend them. No one in the mainstream media or political establishment is even discussing criminal charges against them.

In the words of Mike Elk: “People look at what happened in Boston, and they think that was an intentional terroristic attack. People don't look at what happened in West, Texas, and say that's terrorism.

“But that's a roll of the dice. That's a rule of probability, and eventually, probability catches up to you, and it kills workers. And it is terrorism for many of these workers.”

Aiden, an 18-year-old who works at a gas station in West, said: “If they had reported what chemicals were there, this probably wouldn't have happened at all.

“Or if they had known it was there, they would have known to evacuate the town a lot sooner, being so close to the school and all. They [company officials] do deserve the blame.”

Aiden lives in Ross, which is seven miles away. He said the explosion felt like a gust of wind and sounded like thunder.

He immediately called his parents, because his mom worked at the nursing home next to West Fertilizer Co. She answered the phone, having just finished work, and said she was planning to return to help the elderly people out of the nursing home. She wasn't able to return to work because the nursing home had been destroyed.

As the residents of West try to absorb what happened to their town, the struggles for some are just beginning. The town's poorer residents may end up homeless, and it is not yet known what long-term health effects may result from this corporate-made disaster.

The bosses at West Fertilizer deserve the blame for the explosion that took so many lives, but they aren't alone. Congress, the White House and the national security state are focused on the “war on terror”, but the fact is that 33 individuals have died in the US as a result of terrorist acts since the September 11 attacks.

Over that same time span, roughly 50,000 people have died in workplace “accidents”. Those accidents that might have been prevented if OSHA had enough staff to inspect more workplaces and if the pressure to produce more in less time with fewer workers wasn't so constant.

[Reprinted from US Socialist Worker. Eric Ruder contributed to this article.]