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The Terrorism Bogeyman and Regulating Hazardous Materials


Remember the West, Texas factory explosion. It’s been 2 weeks and the story has almost completely disappeared from the media while CNN continued its 24-hour coverage of the latest details in the Boston Marathon bombings at least until late last week. The lack of follow-up coverage is a huge boon to capitalists who prefer that nothing change in the lax regulatory culture that plagues this nation and especially Texas.

That said, the Texas legislature did hold hearings last week on the explosion in West, showing the utter lack of regulation that not only would allow a fertilizer plant to be next to a middle school and nursing home in West, but also a lack of knowledge about where fertilizer plants are actually located. This shoddy regulation says so much about the United States in 2013:

But since ammonium nitrate isn’t considered an “extremely hazardous” chemical by state and federal agencies, plants only have to report to authorities if they have more than 10,000 pounds of it on hand. The state could have stricter reporting requirements if it chose to, according to David Lakey, Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The maximum amount the West Fertilizer plant reported to the state was 270 tons.

And the burden for communities to know where these chemicals are stored, and how to respond to emergencies at facilities that store them, falls on local officials. There are over 14,000 facilities in Texas that self-report having “extremely hazardous substances” on site, according to Lakey of DSHS. Representatives from that agency testified that chlorine and battery acid are the most common hazardous substances near communities, but that they only oversee reporting, not safety.

“Have we done anything to survey the 41 [fertilizer plants] because of what happened in West?” Pickett asked.

W. Nim Kidd, Assistant Director of DPS and Chief of Emergency Management, answered that his agency doesn’t do surveys, but local fire chiefs have the authority to go in and inspect those facilities.

“Could you suggest that to them?” Pickett asked, wondering if the agency could do more to encourage local fire officials to conduct inspections and prepare emergency response plans.

Last week, I talked to Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor about how industry and pro-industry politicians use terrorist threats as an excuse to hide the location of hazardous materials from the public. (Part of my interview with Jonsson was also used in this piece). The Dallas Morning News tried to find out where fertilizer plants are located in Texas:

After the state, in response to media requests for more information about other fertilizer plant sites, invoked a little-known “confidential information” law that gives wide secrecy discretion to government officials, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board wrote that avoiding tipping off potential terrorists is understandable, “[b]ut in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, [the state] denied the right [of West residents] to make informed choices and protect themselves from imminent danger.”

Industry uses terrorism as a bogeyman. Corporations have opposed right-to-know laws for decades. Terrorism is just a convenient excuse. If terrorists want to attack a chemical facility, there are thousands of poorly secured plants in the open they can target. Moreover, I am going to say this really slow and in bold letters to make this extra easy to understand,

If fertilizer plants are too dangerous to let people know where they are located, they are too dangerous to place next to middle schools and nursing homes.

If there is a real terrorist threat against fertilizer plants, then we need to regulate them like nuclear power plants. Place them away from neighborhoods and under the highest level of security with maximum regulation.

But of course, that’s not what corporations want and it’s extremely unlikely to happen because the terrorism threat is just fear-mongering and excuse-making.

One source of good Texas workers news at least–the United Auto Workers has won an election to represent workers at an Arlington auto parts factory.

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