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Zoning and Nuisance Industries

[ 64 ] April 18, 2013 |

One of the fundamental questions about the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion is why a fertilizer plant was located right in a town, with a nursing home, middle school, and homes close enough to be destroyed if the plant blew up. Fertilizer plants are a ticking time bomb. We don’t know too much yet about the history of the plant, though we do know that it filed a document with the EPA saying it presented no risk for fire or explosion. Given the lack of regulatory capability in the modern American government (with current staffing, it would take OSHA inspectors 129 years to inspect every worksite in America), we have decided to trust corporations to self-regulate. Last night is an example of why that is a very bad idea and why we need a much more activist government with regular inspections of all workplaces and significant fines for violations.

Part of the problem here is the history of American land use and the lack of state control over development. Texas is especially bad on this point, since several cities, including Houston, have no zoning at all. But there is a history, albeit relatively limited, of cities declaring industries as nuisances and banishing them outside of town. Between 1692 and 1708, several Massachusetts towns, including Boston, Salem, and Charlestown, banished so-called “nuisance trades” outside of town. These were mostly slaughterhouses and tanneries.

But outside of New England, there was never much tradition of separating people from industry no matter how bad the health risk. The meatpacking district of Gilded Age Chicago might be the most notorious, but there are any number of examples. The rise of zoning in the 20th century helped alleviate some of these problems. By creating industrial districts, it served to protect Americans from the health hazards of manufacturing. But industrial zoning was largely a municipal rather than federal or state project, meaning that corporations had a tremendous amount of influence on the process. Zoning is not a perfect solution, largely because its local control means that racial prejudice can easily be replicated onto the landscape, but for the purpose of keeping Americans safe from hazards, it’s the best tool we have.

As commenters have pointed out, the fertilizer plant in West is hardly the only example we have of poorly sited industrial projects that threaten large numbers of people. But in examining this tragedy, we have to ask what we could have done to mitigate it. One question revolves around how the fire started and turned into an explosion. That’s under investigation, but when you are dealing with fertilizer there are very real risks. A vigorous regulatory program and strong unions would help a lot, but neither would completely eliminate risks in a nuisance industry like fertilizer. So given the inherent dangers of nuisance industries, why are they located near cities? The answer of course is corporate control over American life.

The move of meatpacking out of Chicago and into the rural Midwest was in part a union-busting move, and in fact meatpackers treat their largely immigrant labor forces terribly, but it actually does make sense to site meatpacking plants in southwestern Kansas, where they will harm fewer people. The same is true of fertilizer production. The government needs to play a more active role in deciding where dangerous and nuisance industries will be located. I am a historian and not a journalist, so I don’t have the time to investigate the specific history of the factory in West. But it doesn’t really matter for the broader point. If factories preexist neighborhoods, zoning needs to keep residents out. If neighborhoods preexist factories, zoning needs to move factories to more isolated places. After all, it’s not like you couldn’t build that factory 10 miles west of West and have it in a much less populated and safer place, basically the scrub country where George W. Bush used to show off his brush-cutting skills in order to score cheap political points.

Let me close by quoting Bill Minutaglio from the Texas Observer:

Because I wrote a book about The Texas City Disaster, my phone began ringing last night with reporters asking about parallels between West and Texas City. A public radio producer who said he wasn’t from Texas wanted to know if it was common to have industrial facilities, like the ones in West, close to residential areas, to schools, to a nursing home. He wanted to know if that kind of thing was “grandfathered” in.

I told him it was complex, and we talked about an inherited political and economic ethos in Texas. That the anti-oversight credo runs deep. It’s in the state’s bedrock. And that, over time, the results are painfully predictable: There will be another explosion (there have been others, more recent ones, in Texas City). There will be more loss of life. And the same questions will emerge—and probably dissipate: What could have been done? Was there enough oversight?

Of course there wasn’t enough oversight. But it’s a cultural problem. We believe capitalists look out for everyone’s interests and that as a society we should cater to the needs of the rich. When we do that, people pay with their lives.

….Here’s an aerial map of West, showing the fertilizer plant’s proximity to the rest of town.

Comments (64)

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  1. Derelict says:

    Back when I did political consulting, land use and planning (and zoning) were the biggest issues in every local fight. It was always about what kind and size of development could be put where. And I was always surprised by the kinds of people who lined up on both sides of these fights.

    • Dilan Esper says:

      Zoning is awful. It segregates by race and class and seriously infringes on property rights.

      The actual solution to this is strict liability and a strong insurance requirement. They won’t be able to get insurance unless they are away from populated areas.

  2. RepubAnon says:

    Isn’t it interesting how lack of adequate government regulations results in injury and death? Gun safety laws, zoning ordinance, food safety, pollution… who knew that watering the tree of liberty was actually done with the blood of citizens sacrificed on the altar of corporate profits?

    Incidentally, how about the competitive advantage China has due to its lax environmental regulations?

    China pig and dog deaths prompt probe into factories
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-22195960

    “Dead animals were found in nearly half of the village. The animals just suddenly died without any warning,” a local resident, who only identified herself as Ms Kou, told China’s Global Times.

    Police are investigating the incident, which many local residents blame on fumes from a nearby chemical plant, Chinese media reported.

    Local villagers said that there had been an “extremely strong odour” on Monday morning, state-run news agency Xinhua said.

  3. Yep. I can’t agree more.
    “That the anti-oversight credo runs deep.” is a sad thing for me. It is a cultural problem. I agree it could have been built far away from schools and apartments and houses. Out in a field far from the interstate and town. It should have been. I wish all such potential disasters would relocate after this event, but I would put the odds at somewhere near the likelihood Rick Perry is gonna stop putting product in his hair.
    Perhaps this might make a city rethink zoning but I am terribly cynical about it. I keep going back to Corpus and Deer Park. Texas City has been hit twice and yet there they sit, right on the other side of the highway. Like a great big bomb that just hasn’t hit the right combination of bad luck to go boom.

  4. JoyfulA says:

    When I lived in the Neighborhoods in Philadelphia, a pickle factory two blocks away stank if the wind blew my way, but it was tolerable. A rendering plant half a mile away made walking to the supermarket across the street from it stomach churning. (Oddly, that chain went bankrupt.) A mile in the opposite direction, a few blocks north of Center City, now called either Northern Liberties or Olde City, was a hog-slaughtering facility. Driving south on Second Street could take a very long time, should you be blocked by a truck unloading hogs.

    Maybe new zoning preceding gentrification moved these industries out of the city, but I bet the reason was going cheap. I know the union hog slaughterers used to make $20/hour in the 1970s, well above what’s being paid now in the rural Midwest. It could be concentration in hog growing* or that the real estate became too valuable for an abattoir. Then the rendering plant disappeared for lack of hog fat to render. I don’t know about the pickle factory or the vile odors from the Rohm & Haas chemical plant on the river side of I95.

    *My cousin lives on an acre or two almost in the country. Raised on a farm of sorts, he used to make a little extra money with a few hogs, as did a lot of people he knows. He quit doing it because of the megahog farms and the low prices; he couldn’t make anything on them. He says he knows people who still raise a few hogs, and “they brag when they break even.”

    • Don K says:

      Ah, Rohm & Haas. Just the mention of it brings back the aroma on the PA side of the Burlington-Bristol bridge, which we would cross when I was a kid to get to the Turnpike from our house in South Jersey. I remember asking my mom how people could stand living near that smell, and she said something about people get used to it and don’t notice it after a while. I was skeptical then, just as I was skeptical that people got used to living near the refineries that lined the NJ Turnpike around Carteret and Linden (IIRC).

    • jim, some guy in iowa says:

      regarding the packing plants moving out of the cities: what you say is right, i think, but i’d add that evolving technology played a part too. fewer but larger slaughterhouses would be hemmed in by the surrounding city, and with advances in refrigeration the animals could be killed closer to where they were raised

  5. ChrisTS says:

    I lived in the “Houston Area” for 3 years while at Rice. My first year was “inside the Belt” and, after moving in to my rental house, I got new neighbors who had goats. Now, I rather like goats, but having them a few feet away from one’s bedroom window is very unpleasant. So, too, is having a rooster right next door. I moved, for my last two years, into one o the ‘outside the Belt’ where there was minimal zoning.

    That said, I think the lack of zoning was good in the very poorest neighborhoods, as many of the residents had farm animals to feed their families. I imagine that zoning rules can be crafted to prevent toxic industries from operating right next to schools, residences, etc., but I also worry that we of means tend to overlook the needs of the very poor.

    • Joel Patterson says:

      The poor do also have a need to continue living–so we might want to go ahead and do some sort of zoning. BTW, there are neighborhoods inside the 610 loop that have signs saying “Deed restrictions enforced” which can limit what property owners do.

  6. Jeffrey Beaumont says:

    We believe capitalists look out for everyone’s interests and that as a society we should cater to the needs of the rich. When we do that, people pay with their lives.

    That’s a good line.

  7. Turbulence says:

    Zoning seems like a poor answer to this problem. Fundamentally, we need a way to make land owners pay for the externalities they impose on people. I think landowners should have every right to build a fertilizer factory in the center of town, IF they post a bond for the reimbursing everyone who would be hurt/killed if the plant exploded. That would force fertilizer plants to move out to heavily rural areas where the danger would be minimized.

    Likewise with fracking: frack away, as long as you post a bond that reimburses communities if their water supplies are damaged. Since water is pretty important, that bond is going to be pretty huge.

    • Royko says:

      There are limits to that approach. Once you let them cut a check to kill people, somewhere, sometime, the numbers are going to work out where it’s cheaper to let people die. And they’ll die.

      What’s the going rate for a life, anyway?

      • Turbulence says:

        What’s the going rate for a life, anyway?

        You’d have to ask an insurance agent. ;-)

        The approach I suggest can definitely be gamed (who decides how likely industrial accidents are and what sort of collateral is acceptable?). But the alternative where small towns just do whatever big companies tell them to do is no better and perhaps worse.

      • salacious says:

        But that’s always true. If you move the plant out to the suburbs where people have to commute, there’s an increased chance of death to car accidents, right? Everything has costs, the goal is for the person deciding where to locate the plant to account for *all* these costs.

      • Brandon says:

        This is similar to the actual financial calculations that slavery sugar plantations would make: how long could they get work out of slaves while underfeeding them such that, even if the slaves die quickly, they still provide net-positive value from the reduced food costs.

    • DrDick says:

      Have you ever visited the real world? Corporations pay tiny pittances for killing people while reaping billions in profits.

    • SatanicPanic says:

      Planning/zoning meetings allow for public comment, which I think is pretty important. Also, who decides the bond? The mayor who lives on a hill? Or the community, most of whom might benefit from jobs but won’t actually have to live next to this new plant? And what’s to recommend about your way?

      • Turbulence says:

        Public comment is a double edged sword. I’ve been to a bunch of public meetings where the overwhelming sentiment is “no new construction nearby at all ever because everything is perfect just the way it is”. I’m not talking heavy industry; I’m talking a 4-story apartment building 100 feet away from a mass transit node.

        Historically, zoning laws have often been used to keep out poor folk and make sure their children can’t comingle with yours at the district school. Rules that say require a minimum one acre lot or that require excessive square-footage-per-person make it illegal to provide housing to poor people; they’re segregation on the sly.

        • JoyfulA says:

          I was at one such meeting that we neighbors looked forward to for information that was mobbed by a hundred employees of a factory that was affected, all with signs and yelling, to the point that we locals felt endangered. City officials gave up and left.

        • SatanicPanic says:

          I’m familiar with the use of zoning laws in the service of segregation, I just don’t see what the difference will be- “oh you want to build apartments? Bond is $100K per unit.”

      • Turbulence says:

        who decides the bond?

        Ideally, the state adopts a standard process. I mean neither a mayor nor the community are likely to be able to assess the probability of an industrial accident.

        What reccomends this is a non-ad-hoc principled method for dealing externalities. And it doesn’t have the historical segregationist problems that zoning does.

    • Slocum says:

      Hi, I’m Bob. I’m dead because your fertilizer factory blew up. Where can I get my reimbursement check.

      You asshat.

      • Unhinged Libera says:

        Hi Bob,

        You’re dead not because the fertilizer plant was too close to your house. You’re dead because your house was built too close to the plant.

        The fertilizer plant was there long before your house was built. In fact, the fertilizer plant was built in 1962 when there were no houses around it at all.

        So, if you wish to blame government and the lack of zoning restrictions for your death, blame them for allowing your house to be built so close to the plant, Bob and you for buying a house so close to the plant.

    • tenactius says:

      Turbulence, your idea has been tried in the mining industry. In Montana at least at companies would sign a bond saying that they would clean up any environmental waste that they created. But what frequently happened was that when the clean up or prevention got too onerous the company would go bankrupt, be bought by someone else who tended to be the same owners with a new corporation. So the taxpayers would be left cleaning up the compromised water tables.

    • Brandon says:

      I know I’d be happy to live next to that plant if I knew I’d get reimbursed for being killed!

  8. N__B says:

    Let me preface my comment by saying that I am in no way a libertarian, free-market-will-solve-all type. I do know of one occasion where capitalism, by accident, saved itself from itself and in the process saved lives: the spread of both passive and active fireproofing from 1872 onwards.

    The big fire insurance companies lost a lot of dough in payouts after the Chicago fire in 1871 and the Boston fire in 1872, and were interested in not paying more. Since they hadn’t yet captured the entire federal government, they did so by raising rates on forms of construction that their research (which eventually led to the creation of the Underwriters’ Laboratory) showed contributed to fire spread. For example, the Boston fire spread, in part, between wood-framed mansard roofs; after 1872, the rates to insure a building with a flammable mansard skyrocketed. A lot of houses in NY and Brooklyn had their mansards surgically removed, by pure coincidence, right around then. The installation of automatic sprinklers in industrial buildings starts around the same time for the same reason.

    It’s not a good mechanism for safety for several reasons, chief among them that it only works after a disaster when the insurance companies are sensitized to payouts, but it sure as hell changed the urban landscape of this country 1875-1910.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The insurance companies are an exception to the deregulation nonsense that dominates this nation, precisely because they are the ones on the hook for it. Insurance is probably the one industry that is demanding action on climate change since they lose so much in each disaster.

      • N__B says:

        But they seem to be less effective then they used to be at forcing improvements. You’d think that a fertilizer plant without much in the way of safety equipment would have a hard time getting insured…

    • why do you think we have seatbelt laws?
      there it is. found the wrinkle.
      insure them, deny them the ability to plant a ‘nuiscance industry’ by raising their rates enough that is cheaper to move out of town than stay there.
      kudos.

  9. joe from Lowell says:

    In paragraph 5, you talk about “factories,” but you don’t mean all factories, do you?

    There are plenty of light industrial uses that coexist just fine near homes. If you want quiet and privacy in a suburban setting, you couldn’t ask for a better set-up than to abut a modern industrial park.

  10. LeeEsq says:

    European cities weren’t so good with zoning during the industrial age either and really didn’t get good till about the same time American cities did. Its really cheap public transit that enabled factory workers to live farther from their place of employment than zoning. Zoning just codified it.

    The problem with zoning is that good zoning, keeping nuisance industries or dangerous industries away from populated areas, eventually led to the bad zoning that created our current suburban sprawl wear you can have tens of square miles of housing and nothing but housing.

    • N__B says:

      People were obsessed with reducing density starting around 1890. If you look at the fire insurance maps of any US city of any size from back then, you’ll find the central business district (as we call it today) marked as the “congested district.”

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Zoning to keep the races and classes separate goes back right to the beginning. The Euclid v. Ambler SCOTUS case of 1926, which upheld local zoning for the first time, used the phrase “pig in the parlor” to describe not a factory in a residential neighborhood, but an apartment building in a single-family neighborhood.

  11. cpinva says:

    “We believe capitalists look out for everyone’s interests”

    who, exactly, believes this? aside from those (like, oh, i don’t know, capitalists maybe?) who have a vested financial/political interest in “believing” it? capitalists look out for their own interests, period. always have and always will. any interests they pay attention to are ulitmately connected to their own, or they pay them no mind. to think otherwise is a fool’s game.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The entire state of Texas, among others?

      • ok but what happens when the concrete plant is near the capitalist’s home?
        well, in one case it still sits there today.
        Southlake,TX is one of the most affluent communities in the country, chock full of McMansions, lawyers, doctors and other questionable characters. Yet, there sits on the corner of one of the busiest thoroughfares in their suburban once was ex-urban community a concrete dispensing facility.
        It just ain’t right they said. Dust all over my brand new Mercedes!
        Yet, there it sits. Still. It won. After no small amount of court dates.
        Southlake has hard and fast rules about zoning. There will never be another new concrete plant in twenty miles. Nobody else around there wanted it either. But, there it stays. It won’t expand, but by God they are not going away either. Claim your turf and stay put.

        I consider it a living piece of irony. A great big fat reminder that the law sometimes works against your well-vested interest. If the banker going down the superhighway has to choke a bit on the concrete dust that got past his car’s AC filter that is one small jab at him.
        Take that you sorry sonofabitch. I breathe that shit every goddamn day. I wear a mask at work. You can put that fancy handkerchief over your mouth inside your half million dollar car.

        I better get some sleep. Pvp hasn’t taken it out of me yet.

      • tt says:

        I know people who believe that greed is good and capitalists looking out for their own interest is their god given right. I know people who have deep faith that the unregulated free market will, through capitalist greed and the invisible hand, bring prosperity for all. And I know lots of people who hate capitalists, but hate liberals/blacks/gays etc. more and therefore decide to align themselves with them anyways. But I’ve literally never heard the sentiment expressed that capitalists look out for everyone’s interests (indeed, I think many on the right would look suspiciously at any capitalist who claimed to do so). Nor have I even seen such a sentiment on the craziest sections of the RW internet. I’m not saying that no one in history has ever had such a thought, but I really don’t think it has much power to explain how capitalists have been able to take over our institutions.

        • Bill Murray says:

          I think self-regulation falls under the rubric of capitalists will do what’s best for everyone. So do those who think what’s good for GM is good for America

          • tt says:

            What do you mean by “self-regulation?” As you can tell even just by reading the comment threads on this disaster on LGM, there’s a common thought that threat of lawsuits are sufficient to get businesses to regulate and so direct government intervention is unnecessary. Also, the idea that businesses have to provide safe workplaces or no one will be willing to work there. But both these ideas rely on capitalist self-interest, not altruism.

            “What’s good for GM is good for America” is just an expression of the idea that capitalist success will bring broad prosperity. Again, very common idea that Republicans talk about all the time, that we need to lower taxes so businesses will hire people due to their self interest in making money. None of this depends on capitalist altruism.

  12. Terry Teagle says:

    I thought this interactive before/after photo from the Dallas News does an even better job of explaining how close everything was to the facility, and gave me a better sense of the scale of the damage (which is honestly less than I had expected from the reports).

    http://www.dallasnews.com/news/databases/20130418-interactive-west-fertilizer-plant-before-and-after.ece

    • jim, some guy in iowa says:

      thanks. it’s basically a storage/transfer facility with the capability of blending some dry fertilizer and mixing chemicals, not a manufacturing plant (which is what i thought it was from early reports). it looks to me as if the problem isn’t the location of the plant so much as the fact they built the school, etc right up to it – i’m almost willing to bet that not all that long ago the plant was on the far outskirts of town

      • Lurker says:

        This kind of situations are not unheard of in Europe, either. While we do have quite strict zoning, there are loopholes.

        In a nearby city, there was a “railway station”: a disused endpoint marking the boundary between a line that was closed in 1980′s and the active railway network. The only use it had was that it was necessary for some trains to back into, so they could access certain industrial tracks. Even in its active days, the passenger traffic was a couple of people per days, and freight traffic meant a freight car or two standing on a sidetrack for local farmers. Since 1950′s, however, a semi-rural suburban community had grown around it, with some 2,000 inhabitants.

        Now, an oil company decided to establish a natural gas terminal and bottling plant there. It is legitimate to use an existing railway station for such transport use, and the zoning as “railway station” permits such use. And as long as they never park more than eight railway cars of liquid natural gas (some 200 metric tonnes) at the terminal, they are not considered a storage facility (which requires a safety permit) but just a transport of dangerous goods.

        The locals hated it, naturally, but they couldn’t fight it. Perfectly legal, although completely unforeseeable. Now there are always eight Russian gas tank cars standing on the tracks in the middle of the village, waiting to be unloaded to consumer bottles.

    • trollhattan says:

      Graphic display of the destruction. I noticed on the Google sat photo the plant has what looks like a concrete footprint of a former tank, identical to the one just destroyed. And across the railroad tracks, what looks like a city part, north of the middle school, with an odd circular…exercise yard? the same diameter. Was the plant once larger, or was there another similar plant on the other side? Whose idea was it to build the middle school here, and also the much larger high school to the south? Was the land formerly part of this, or another plant?

      https://maps.google.com/maps?q=west+texas&ll=31.816958,-97.087692&spn=0.001219,0.002642&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&hnear=West,+McLennan,+Texas&t=h&z=19

  13. LuigiDaMan says:

    I’m in northern Ohio and you used to be able to build a filthy, stinking bomb of a plant anywhere you wanted to. I’m not as involved, but if it involves capitalism and naked money, I’m still sure, with exceptions to the areas where rich people live, you can build a dangerous, hopefully non-union plant damn near anywhere. Come to Ohio. We like screwing our residents and killing our environment.

  14. Dan Miller says:

    The problem is that a lot of people will look at zoning and see a tool that enables them to shut down a corner store or a neighborhood bar that they don’t like. In a lot of cities on the East Coast especially, we’ve gone too far in the other direction–it’s almost impossible to open up new retail in primarily residential areas, even when that would clearly help the neighborhood, because of rampant NIMBYism.

    • Unhinged Liberal says:

      Dan,

      I think you’ve hit upon the issue here. People want to use government to force their agenda, but then are appalled when others use government to force theirs.

      You see, the key is to devise a system in which you can use government to force your agenda, and then shut down the other side and prevent them from doing the same to you.

      That’s what race preference hiring, Affirmative Action and other current racial policies do. They use government to favor certain races over others using the guise of ‘equality’ when there’s nothing equal about it.

      It’s genius.

      • jim, some guy in iowa says:

        that might possibly be convincing if the republican-controlled state legislatures weren’t using gerrymandering to prop up the republican majority in the house of representatives. talk about affirmative action for politicians…

    • drs says:

      Every new business in Davis Square, Somerville, MA has to be individually approved. “Another frozen yogurt place? But we already have two, why should we let you open?”

      Preventing noise and noxiousness nuisances is a good thing (and I’d like to see *more* on that front, like public certification of how noise-insulated apartments are, also energy efficiency/insulation), but that sort of micromanagement strikes me as dubious.

  15. [...] Lawyers, Guns and Money, Erik Loomis unpacks the background behind the weak zoning regulations in the United States, as evidenced by the [...]

  16. hickes01 says:

    I want Jack Welsh to stand in the bomb crater that was West, Texas and explain to me again how silly regulations are ruining the economy.

  17. Eli Rabett says:

    Have you guys ever heard about East St. Louis? Besides all the chemical plants in the city, the companies managed to get their plants West Berlined out of the city so they would not have to pay taxes.

  18. In 1959 an explosives delivery truck blew up in downtown Roseburg, Oregon. And:

    The Roseburg explosion attracted national attention and resulted in stricter explosives-transport safety regulations and enforcement by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

    Although a lawsuit brought to light Pacific Powder’s poor safety record, neither the company nor Rutherford was found liable. After the Roseburg Blast, federal regulations and state laws would more tightly regulate both public and private carriers of explosives.

    So there’s that.

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