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“From Poor Regulation To Terrorism”: Texas’ Wild West Approach To Protecting Public Health And Safety

You might think the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that leveled the town and killed 14 people would have given pause to those conservative policymakers and boosters in the Lone Star State who proudly boast of a “Texas Way” in which job-creators aren’t hassled by pointy-headed bureaucrats and regulators or income taxes or any of those other new-fangled socialist devices. But no: under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, we learn from a New York Times story today, Texas government and business officials are going out of their way to reiterate that this is a place where the Bidnessman walks tall, and poor living standards and high workplace risks are just the price of keeping job creators fat and happy.

Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.

But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs….

“The Wild West approach to protecting public health and safety is what you get when you give companies too much economic freedom and not enough responsibility and accountability,” said Thomas O. McGarity, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and an expert on regulation.

So I’d bet today’s news that Texas law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation based on reports that federal agents found bomb-making materials in the possession of a paramedic who was on the scene in West is going to generate a lot of excitement in the state’s conservative circles. True, the suspect who was arrested by the ATF isn’t an Arab or even a Chechen, and no one knows at this point if he had anything to do with the explosion, and if so, what his motives might have been.

But Lord a-mercy, wouldn’t it be nice if it was a terrorist and not an industry or lawmakers or regulators we ought to be looking at in connection with this tragedy? The very possibility must be worth toasting in certain circles during today’s Texas happy hours.

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 10, 2013

May 12, 2013 Posted by | Public Health, Public Safety | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fewer And Fewer Regulators To Ensure Safety”: Austerity, Deregulation And The Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion

Last evening, a fertilizer plant owned by Adair Grain Inc. in West, Texas caught fire, then exploded, killing several people and wounding at least one hundred. The blast, caught on video from afar, destroyed nearby homes, businesses and a nursing home for seniors. There are still lingering questions about how this happened, but documents suggest the plant faced little regulatory scrutiny.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the plant filed papers with state and federal environmental regulators in 2006 claiming that there were “no” fire or explosive risks at the plant. “The worst possible scenario, the report said, would be a ten-minute release of ammonia gas that would kill or injure no one,” noted reporter Randy Lee Loftis. Residents complained about the smell of ammonia as they “went to bed” that year, according to a filing.

As I pointed out on Twitter last night, in the last five years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has only inspected five fertilizer plants in the entire state of Texas—and the plant in West, Texas was not one of them. OSHA is severely understaffed and operates with a tiny federal budget. With the agency’s current resources, that means “OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years and state OSHA inspectors could inspect one every 67 years.”

There are specialized inspectors for chemical plants that, in theory, should have covered where OSHA or environmental regulators left off. The US Chemical Safety Board, which came into operation in 1998, is the commission tasked with investigating safety violations. Like similar boards, the Chemical Safety Board has virtually no resources: only a $10 million budget to cover every violation in the country. The Center for Public Integrity has a new, incredibly damning report, showing that the agency has failed to investigate several recent disasters, including the death of a worker at refinery in Memphis last December.

Budget cuts, and the sequestration, loom large as every federal workforce is scaled back. Rather than provoking reform, at least in the short term, tragedies like this may get worse as there are fewer and fewer regulators to ensure safety at these types of facilities.


By: Lee Fang, The Nation, April 18, 2013

April 20, 2013 Posted by | Sequester | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“They Need Jobs, So Let Them Burn”: Fox Business Host On Bangladeshi Fire Victims, “Let’s Not Victimize Poor Walmart”

Fox Business host and self-evidently despicable person Charles Payne:

It is tragic. I don’t think something like this will happen again. Don’t think that the people in Bangladesh who perished didn’t want or need those jobs, as well. I know we like to victimize everyone in this country, particularly when it comes to for-profit motivation, which is being assaulted. But, you know, it is a tragedy but I think it is a stretch, an amazing stretch, to sort of try to pin this on Walmart but, of course, the unions in this country are desperate.

Let’s take this line by line.

“It is tragic.” Said in an offhanded “let’s get this out of the way so I’m not accused of being heartless” way.

“I don’t think something like this will happen again.” Actually, it happens a lot. Hundreds of garment workers in Bangladesh have been killed in fires in recent years. In fact, at least 10 people were injured in another garment factory fire Monday. It’s true that a fire killing more than 100 people is rare, if that’s what Payne means by “something like this,” but if he just means a fatal fire in a Bangladeshi garment factory, then yeah, it’s going to happen again unless there are big, big changes in labor and workplace safety laws there.

“Don’t think that the people in Bangladesh who perished didn’t want or need those jobs, as well.” Well, Charles, people need jobs. But the thing is, “I need this job” and “I look forward to choosing between burning to death or jumping out of an eight-story building to escape burning to death” are two very different things. “I need this job” should not be a license for exploitation. In fact, garment workers have been fighting to improve working conditions even though by law they are not allowed to unionize, unlike many other workers in Bangladesh. Though the minimum wage for garment workers is now just $38 a month, less than two thirds of the country’s per capita income, that $38 represents a big increase that workers protested and fought for this year. Yes, these workers need jobs, but their fight to make those jobs better, and the large protests they’ve staged in the wake of this fire, show that it’s not as simple as “well, they need jobs, so let them burn.”

“I know we like to victimize everyone in this country, particularly when it comes to for-profit motivation, which is being assaulted.” Victimize? Let’s talk about victims. Like the at least 112 victims of this fire in which there were no fire extinguishers, exits were inadequate or even locked, and one manager reportedly told people to get back to work after a fire alarm sounded. I’m pretty sure they, and not the profit motive, are the victims here.

“But, you know, it is a tragedy but I think it is a stretch, an amazing stretch, to sort of try to pin this on Walmart but, of course, the unions in this country are desperate.” In the wake of this fire, it kind of defies belief how many companies whose clothes were found in the burned factory have said their clothes shouldn’t have been there anymore, that, yes, they’d used that factory in the past but had stopped just in time to deny that their clothes should have been there. Amazing. So no, it’s not just Walmart. It’s also Sears and Dickies and Ikea and who knows what other companies. But as the largest retailer in the world, Walmart does more than any other company to set prices and labor conditions for manufacturers.

Really, Payne might as well have said, “I realize I’m supposed to say this is tragic, but I’m a little confused about why I’m supposed to think the tragedy is the loss of more than 100 lives and not the potential threat to Walmart’s profits.”


By: Laura Clawson, Daily Kos, November 27, 2012

November 28, 2012 Posted by | Corporations | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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