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Two Acts of Terror, Only One Investigation

The way I see it, we had two acts of terrorism in the US this week. The first took place at the end of the historic Boston Marathon, when two bombs went off near the finish line, killing three and seriously injuring dozens of runners and spectators. The second happened a couple days later in the town of West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant blew up, incinerating or otherwise killing at least 15, and injuring at least 150 people, and probably more as the search for the dead and the injured continues.

It’s pretty clear that the Boston Marathon bombing was an act of terrorism, with police making arrests and having killed one of the two suspects who had earlier been captured on film and video at the scene of the bombings.

The villains in the West Fertilizer Co. explosion are can be much more easily identified: the managers and owners of the plant.

West Fertilizer was built in the middle of the small town of West, TX, a community founded in the 19th century and named after the first local postmaster, T.M. West. It makes no sense, of course, to put a facility that uses highly toxic anhydrous ammonia as a primary feed stock — a compound that burns the lungs and kills on contact, and that, because it must be stored under pressure, is highly prone to leaks and explosive releases — and that makes as its main product ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Ammonium nitrate is the highly explosive compound favored by truck bombers like the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. It was the fertilizer, vast quantities of which were stored at the West Fertilizer plant site, which caused the colossal explosion that leveled much of the town of West.

Building such a dangerous facility in the midst of a residential and business area, and allowing homes, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and playgrounds to be built alongside it, is the result of a corrupt process that is common in towns and cities across America, where business leaders routinely have their way with local planning and zoning commissions, safety inspectors and city councils. Businesses small and large also have their way with state and federal safety and health inspectors.

We know that the EPA, back in 2006, cited West Fertilizer for not having an emergency risk management plan. That is, a dangerous and explosion-prone plant that was using a hazardous chemical in large quantities, and that was storing highly explosive material also in large quantities, had made little or no effort to assess the risks of what it was doing. Indeed, it has been reported that the company had assured the EPA, in response to the complaint, that there was “no risk” of an explosion at the plant! An AP article reports that the company, five years after being cited for lacking a risk plan, did file one with the EPA, but that the report claimed the company “…was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.”

Yet the AP article goes on to say that “State officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance, according to Mike Wilson, head of air permitting for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”

The article says:

“Records reviewed by The Associated Press show the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan. An inspector also found the plant’s ammonia tanks weren’t properly labeled.”

Then the article gets to the crux of the problem, saying:

“The government accepted $5,250 after the company took what it described as corrective actions, the records show. It is not unusual for companies to negotiate lower fines with regulators.”

Aside from the ridiculousness of West Fertilizer management’s reported assertion that the plant wasn’t handling flammable materials (a claim that the current deadly catastrophe has demonstrably proved was false), consider the incredible response of the EPA to this incredible assertion: The agency, emasculated by the Bush administration, and still a joke under the Obama administration, levied a pathetically small fine, but did nothing to shut the operation down until it put in place critical safety measures.

The other agency that could have acted, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is even more of a paper tiger than the EPA. Despite their inherent risks and hazards, it is reported that OSHA has made only six investigations of fertilizer plant operators in Texas in the last six years. West Fertilizer was not one of them. In six years, it has not been visited by OSHA inspectors!

How can this be so? Because the entire health and safety regulatory apparatus of the US, from the federal level to the states and right down to local government, has been effectively neutered by corporate interests, who have used everything from threats of relocating to campaign contributions and outright bribes of officials and elected representatives to buy or win the right to basically operate as unsafely as they like, free of supervision.

As a result, regulation of dangerous plants and factories in the US these days is essentially nonexistent.

That, to me, is a kind of terrorism, and it is far more dangerous to the health and safety of the American people than any foreign or domestic terrorist or terrorist organization.

Yet the bulk of the American people are focusing their fears on terrorists from abroad, or in some cases here at home, not on the corporate suites where the real evil and the real danger lies.

Until we Americans wake up and insist that our elected officials and the regulatory bureaucrats they appoint, actually act in the public interest and not in the interest of the moneyed corporate elite (booting out those that betray us), we will increasingly all pay the price as plants blow up or leak toxic gas, as oil and gas companies wantonly pollute our water tables with carcinogenic toxins, and as nuclear power plants dump isotopes into our environment, all in the interest of profits.

The real terrorists in our midst are not men with knapsacks and white baseball caps who plant homemade bombs. They are not swarthy terrorists from the Middle East. Rather, they are the mostly white men (and women) in business suits on Wall Street and Main Street who callously use their wealth to subvert the political system to their short-term advantage, causing common-sense safety and health precautions to be ignored, or getting those laws watered down or outright cancelled.

Of course, a classic terrorist is trying to kill while the corporate executive is often “just” putting concerns about profits ahead of concerns about the safety or workers and people who live nearby, but in the final analysis, the victim of a terrorist’s bomb. The difference is that we won’t see the FBI or the local police tracking down and arresting the killers and maimers in the case of a fertilizer plant explosion. The people responsible for that type of outrage typically just collect their insurance payments (maybe paying some token fine), rebuild, and go on making their dangerous product as before — usually in the same location.

Dave Lindorff is a  founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. Lindorff’s article on drones in Philadelphia appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He lives in Philadelphia.

 

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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