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.
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.