Does it go too far to call the West Fertilizer Corporation a terrorist corporation for its actions that led to the explosion that has killed at least 14 people so far, a number that could still go higher, and destroyed much of the town of West, Texas? Perhaps it goes too far to use such a term. On the other hand, the West Fertilizer Corporation actually violated federal anti-terrorism law:
The fertilizer plant that exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Yet a person familiar with DHS operations said the company that owns the plant, West Fertilizer, did not tell the agency about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do, leaving one of the principal regulators of ammonium nitrate – which can also be used in bomb making – unaware of any danger there.
Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb (180 kg) or more of the substance. Filings this year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.
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.”
That’s a pretty incredible violation. It’s hardly the only problem with the plant. Last summer, it was fined $10,000 for safety violations, although that was reduced after the company ameliorated the problem. It last received an OSHA inspection in 1985, when it was fined $30. The town itself is devastated, not only because of the 14 dead but because of the destruction of its infrastructure.
So what punishment should the owners of the West Fertilizer Corporation receive? Should they be treated like other violators of anti-terrorism law? They killed far more people than the Tsarnaev brothers. Should they be charged with murder? Should they even serve prison time? It’s highly unlikely that even the latter will happen given the amount we excuse anti-social corporate behavior. Corporations now have free speech rights but they don’t have personal responsibility.
Of course, the real question is how many other ticking time bombs are in communities around the nation? There are few industries with the potential for massive disaster of fertilizer, but between petroleum, chemicals, and mining, there are all sorts of communities suffering from enormous environmental and workplace safety problems. Grain elevators with poor safety standards litter much of the nation. Then there’s industries most of us don’t even think about, like fertilizer. Without a far more vigorous regulatory structure with real consequences for corporations, workers and communities will continue to bear avoidable burdens. It might be a long time before we see a workplace disaster this bad again (although it will eventually happen in coal), but smaller disasters will kill 1, 2, 5 workers in various places, while the poor will contract cancer, black lung, and other diseases from their inability to escape exposure to industrialized nature and the consequences of corporate malfeasance.