West Rising

Remains of the West Fertilizer Plant are at the upper right.

Remains of the West Fertilizer Plant are at the upper right.

Last Thursday, the 17th, marked a horrific first anniversary for the tiny Texas community of West, just south of Dallas / Fort Worth. On April 17, 2013, the town experienced a cataclysmic event that almost destroyed it. A fire at a fertilizer plant late in the day exploded, killing 15 people (mostly volunteer firefighters) and injuring more than 200 others. The physical impact was unbelievable. The blast registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake on seismographs in the region and could be felt up to 50 miles away. It carved a 10-foot crater in the ground beneath it. Windows up to 7 miles away were blown out. It obliterated two of its three schools and its one apartment complex. Several other structures were damaged so badly they had to be torn down.

As with any disaster, the psychological and emotional repercussions are immeasurable – and often irreparable. Small towns are usually like large families; yes, everybody seems to know your name and know your business. That sense of closeness frightens some people, yet it makes the town loveable.

But, amidst the trauma of recovery, West has entered into the lexicon of environmental protectionism and has become an unnecessary pawn in the battle between federal oversight and state independence. What happened in West last year is a perfect example of extreme business deregulation. It’s the result of corporate malfeasance and an entrenched conservative mindset that only companies understand what’s best for them and their communities and therefore, should be permitted to do whatever they please.

The West Fertilizer Company had supplied fertilizer and other chemicals to area farmers since its founding in 1962. Last year, just weeks before the explosion, Adair Grain bought the facility. The plant had last been inspected in 1985, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the plant for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia and fined it $30. In 2006, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – the equivalent of a guard rabbit in a wolf pack – investigated complaints of ammonia smells originating from the plant and cited the owners for not having obtained proper permits for its two storage tanks containing that ubiquitous anhydrous ammonia. That same year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined West Fertilizer $2,300 for a variety of problems, including failure to file a risk management plan. Just ten months before the explosion, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an affiliate of the U.S. Department of Transportation, fined the company $5,250 for violations regarding storage of – you guessed it – anhydrous ammonia.

Since the EPA and the DOT are government agencies, they have few friends in Texas’ business world or in the state legislature. Texas’ pro-business stance is firmly carved into its culture. The state weathered the recent economic downturn better than most others and has produced more jobs and opened more businesses within the past year alone than any other state. In the months preceding the West explosion, Governor Rick Perry – still recovering from his pathetic 2012 presidential bid – dared to storm into the state of California and promote the “Lone Star State” as a more ideal place for business.

“Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible,” Perry said in a 30-second radio ad that ran in key California markets.  “This is Texas Governor Rick Perry, and I have a message for California businesses. Come check out Texas. There are plenty of reasons Texas has been named the best state for doing business for eight years running. Visit texaswideopenforbusiness.com and see why our low taxes, sensible regulations and fair legal system are just the thing to get your business moving to Texas.”

He’s right to an extent. California, like Texas, is one of the world’s largest economies. Both states could probably secede (something Perry himself actually propositioned) and survive comfortably. But, California would have a tougher time. From a business perspective, it is the opposite of Texas: highly regulated and highly taxed. A close friend of mine tried to make California his home after leaving the U.S. Navy in the early 1990s, but had to leave, he told me, before he “ended up out on the streets.” A long-time acquaintance in Oakland once asked about the cost of living in Texas. Several years ago a cousin once told her mother (my aunt) that she wouldn’t mind moving to Texas if it wasn’t for the intense heat we experience during summer. She lived in upstate New York at the time and had tired of the heavy state income tax.

Perry’s efforts started paying off almost immediately. Texas commerce officials began receiving calls from California business owners, including some large companies, about details of relocating. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom told a local radio station that Perry is “getting in our heads.” It’s certainly not just Perry’s charming accent; that lure of low taxes and limited regulations is too much to resist.

Then, came West.

An aerial view of the smoke plume on April 17, 2013.

An aerial view of the smoke plume on April 17, 2013.

Chemicals are dangerous things. There’s a reason a traditional skull-and-crossbones emblem is placed on containers holding them. After the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the U.S. federal government tried to impose strict regulations on the sale and purchase of large quantities of ammonium nitrate – the key substance in the catastrophe. But, the efforts have been stymied – again by strong business interests that blame misuse and not the chemical itself. It’s similar to arguments by the National Rifle Association that further gun regulation won’t stop violent, gun-related crimes. In other words, guns don’t kill; people do. True, indeed. But, regulation addresses individuals who use said products. Again, regulation is a vile word in the business community. Among conservatives – the same ones who want to tell same-sex couples they can’t get married – regulation is tantamount to a deadly sin.

Intense deregulation has created some of the worst financial crises in U.S. history. After World War I (then called the “Great War”), a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress forced through legislation that allowed the financial industry to engage in bold new practices, such as “over-speculation.” President Woodrow Wilson seemed unable to stop it, especially after suffering a debilitating stroke in September of 1919 (a fact that remained hidden until long after his death five years later). But, while the irreverent behavior made the 1920s explosively lucrative for the nation, it ultimately led to the 1929 stock market crash and subsequently, the Great Depression.

The 1982 Garn-St. Germain Act allowed for almost complete deregulation of the savings and loans sector; they were allowed to partake in risky business practices, such as issuing credit cards and investing credit cards and investment in non-residential real estate loans. Many economic experts conclude the Act culminated in the savings and loans collapse that spilled into the early 1990s. Millions of dollars and millions of jobs were lost. At the turn of this last century, further deregulation of banking commerce, along with housing, incited the worst recessionary period since the Great Depression.

Extreme deregulation, however, can also be deadly. Beginning in the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution pushed many nations into a state of modernity they never expected. Steam engines, railroads and motorized vehicles slowly worked their way into both urban and rural areas. Such developments made life simpler for many people – and produced incredible fortunes for a handful of individuals and their families. But, it also created a cavernous divide among those at the very top who frolicked in their wealth and those who slaved (sometimes died) to create it for them. By the 1890s, the Anarchist Movement had arisen in Europe and, by 1900, had arrived in the U.S. When average workers called for better wages and safer conditions, the titans of industry literally scoffed at them.

In 1896, William McKinley and his fellow Republicans took advantage of the 1893 recession (then the worst in U.S. history) to advance their pro-business and protectionist agenda. It certainly didn’t hurt that he received financial support from wealthy industrialist Marcus Alonzo Hanna, a fellow Ohioan. McKinley’s 1897 inauguration was the first to be photographed with moving film. That same year the U.S. fully recovered from the economic downturn, so McKinley easily won a second term in 1900.

Before then, however, his Vice-President, Garret Hobart, died in November of 1899. During his 1900 campaign, McKinley selected a curious and intriguing character as his running mate: Theodore Roosevelt. A rising star in the Republican Party at the time, Roosevelt is best remembered for his passion for land and nature conservation. But, much to the chagrin of his fellow politicians, Roosevelt also supported worker rights and safety standards in the workplace. Ironically, he got his chance to push that agenda after McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by León Czolgosz, a U.S. citizen born of Polish-Russian immigrants. Czolgosz was also an anarchist and had lost his job at a wire mill; where (according to various claims) he suffered a mental breakdown due to the horrific working conditions.

Anti-trust laws had come into place by the time Roosevelt took office. But, he brought it to new levels; thus earning him a reputation as a “trust buster.” It didn’t faze him. Long before he attained the presidency, Roosevelt had criticized the affluent in America. The continued exploitation of the public could result in violent uprisings that would, in effect, destroy the economy. He also condemned the arrogance of industry heads – the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, etc. – who apparently believed they were above the government. Some things don’t change, do they?

But, while American workers continued to get hurt and die on the job, the public as a whole didn’t realize how bad things were until the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. In less than 20 minutes, a fire engulfed three of the building’s floors and killed 146 people – mostly immigrant women and girls. The sight of dead bodies both inside the factory and on the sidewalks outside (where several had jumped as a desperate attempt to escape the flames) was too much to bear. Cries for workplace safety reforms quickly rose up, and – just as quickly – the city and the state of New York responded with strict regulations. For the first time in U.S. history, fire codes were enacted, including requirements for designated exits and forbidding locked doors during working hours. (Locked doors were one of the primary reasons so many people died in the Triangle fire.) As usual, corporate executives complained; denouncing the new regulations as anti-business and detrimental to the country’s economic welfare. They dismissed the injuries and deaths as another cost of doing business.

The struggles for workers didn’t end there. Companies continued to find creative ways to ignore safety compliance demands.  Brutal working conditions and low pay in California’s crop fields were what compelled César Chávez to lead the United Farm Workers strike in 1965; a strike that lasted five years and almost bankrupted California’s agricultural sector. The accidental deaths of two sanitation workers in a trash compactor are what led Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis in 1968.

Mining has always been a chief target for workplace safety regulations. In 1977, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Admittedly, mining is an inherently dangerous profession; there are only a finite number of safety precautions that can be taken to ensure all the workers return home. But, beginning in the 1990s, mine owners pushed for relaxation of those standards; using the old conservative mantra that they stifle productivity. Under the administration of George W. Bush, they achieved much of what they demanded. Safety procedures that had been in place for years were either overturned or greatly reduced. For example, in 2001, the Bush Administration killed a proposal to test the viability of constructing conveyor belts of fire-resistant materials. Mining accidents and fatalities began to climb almost immediately, starting with the 2002 Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania. No one died, but 9 men were trapped in the mine for 3 days.

Most recently, in 2010, 29 miners perished at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; the deadliest mining disaster in the U.S. in nearly 40 years. Some had survived the initial explosion, but suffocated to death when they became trapped. The mine’s owner, Massey Energy, had deliberately thwarted any attempts to enforce existing safety regulations, or impose new ones. In 2009, the government fined Massey $382,000 for “serious” violations of the 1977 Mine Act. Between then and the Upper Big Branch calamity, Massey received 57 additional safety infractions. None of that seemed to upset then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship. He sold his Massey stock for $21.24 million shortly afterwards and retired from Massey in December 2010. The following year he established another coal mining operation, McCoy Coal Group, in Kentucky. His arrogance and self-righteous demeanor shined brightly when he supported Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid and threatened his employees that, if President Obama won another term, they’d all lose their jobs. He actually ordered them to vote for Romney, a direct violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Just two weeks after the Upper Big Branch calamity, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of México exploded, killing 11 men and injuring 17 others. In the darkness, several workers were forced to hurtle themselves into the water several feet below. The rig burned for 36 hours before collapsing into the Gulf; subsequently pouring more than 200 million gallons of crude oil for nearly three months before it was capped. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The sight of such a massive structure wrapped in flames was bad enough. But, flippant statements by Tony Hayward, then-CEO of BP (formerly British Petroleum), which operated the rig, once again proved the disconnected nature of corporate executives. Hayward initially deemed the spill “relatively tiny” in comparison to the “very big ocean.” Later, he bemoaned the extent of the crisis by saying he wanted “my life back.” He resigned in July of 2010, just as the spill was sealed off.

BP incurred $40 billion in fines and cleanup costs associated with the spill. But, it wasn’t the first. Just four years earlier, a BP facility had been the catalyst for a catastrophic oil spill in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. Some 212,000 gallons of crude oil had spilled from company pipelines on the North Slope. In May of 2011, BP paid out $25 million to settle the various claims against them.

In each case, the spills shouldn’t have come as an absolute surprise. Workers in Prudhoe Bay and on Deepwater had complained about various leaks and faulty equipment for weeks before the respective incidents. In each location, no one in authority paid much attention. But, just after some of the Deepwater employees made it to dry land, company officials started shoving papers in front of them to sign; documents that would absolve both BP and Transocean (the rig’s owner) of any liability. Fortunately, none of them fell for the trap.

In a way, I’ve seen the effects of irresponsible industrial business up close. For most of the summer of 2003, I traveled weekly to a small community in West Texas (not to be confused with the town of West) where I processed documentation for a defunct electrical firm. (Although it’s now a matter of public record, I still won’t mention any company names.) The business had built and installed electrical transformers for decades. No one ever thought much about the large trash-can-looking contraptions, until scientists realized the polychlorinated biphenyl-saturated oil used to insulate them was extremely dangerous. PCB has been linked to a host of ailments; its odorless and tasteless qualities making it virtually undetectable in the water and soil around the town where it had leaked. It was one reason why the local water bore a salty taste; a discomforting fact I learned quickly. I was even concerned about taking a shower and resorted to giving my then-year-old puppy cold bottled water I bought from a hotel vending machine. One woman with the local TCEQ office told me in confidence that her superiors in Austin had the toughest time reaching the community’s state and U.S. congressional representatives, both Republicans. “They just won’t return their calls,” she whispered.

I had to visit the site a number of times to procure documents and started to wonder if my life was in danger from just walking to and from the facility. The transformers sat untouched and rusting in a large, fenced-in area; where the sharp West Texas winds could pick up their PCB coatings and hurtle them anywhere.

A seismograph reading from Hockley, Texas, 142 miles (228 km) south-east of West, charts the temblor caused by the plant explosion.

A seismograph reading from Hockley, Texas, 142 miles (228 km) south-east of West, charts the temblor caused by the plant explosion.

Meanwhile, West continues recovering with the help of both state and federal money, as well as through the incredible outpouring of support from average citizens across the country; people who understand the frailties of human existence. Last year OSHA fined Adair Grain a paltry $118,300. The company had only $1 million in insurance and has not rebuilt. Two days after the disaster, Donald Adair, the company’s president, issued a formal statement of condolence. The town of West is now suing Adair.

But, even now, a year later, state officials are reticent to establish more regulations for the storage of dangerous chemicals. Texas is among a handful of states that doesn’t have a uniform fire safety code. It only requires counties with a population of at least 250,000 (and those bordering one) to have such codes. Still, a number of facilities across the state keep their highly volatile supplies of fertilizer and other chemicals housed within unstable structures, such as wooden barns and tool sheds. Adair didn’t have an automatic sprinkler in its fertilizer housing unit, but the company had installed security cameras to deter would-be methamphetamine dealers from stealing their product. The cause of the fire is still unknown, although officials believe a faulty golf cart may have sparked it. People will continue working in these places because many have no other means of support. They have only two choices: work in unsafe conditions, or go hungry and become homeless. What would you do?

A cell phone video captured the terror of the West explosion.

2 Comments

Filed under Essays

2 responses to “West Rising

  1. And the beat goes one, doesn’t it. You did a truly great job at research and presenting the facts Alejandro. This lays it all out there, historic and present day. We are truly doomed if we don’t get some of this under control.

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