Atlas Has Shrugged: West, Texas

Like almost anyone who lives in Texas, I have visited the town of West, uncountable times. Nobody drives I-35 through the middle of the state without stopping for the famous kolaches. Hardly anyone else knows much about the little community. But it is about to become an icon of our failures to properly oversee dangerous businesses and manage our governments.

Let's concede the remote possibility there may have been a criminal act involved. David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound at Mt. Carmel was only 15 miles distant, and, as we already know, the Oklahoma City bombing was a criminal response to the federal government's actions. This week in April, as has been shown by events like the Boston tragedy and the Ruby Ridge shootout, can deliver us unto evil in America.

But what happened in West is probably more about government inactions.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) acknowledged today that it only inspects plants like West Fertilizer on the basis of complaints. The most basic interpretation of that statement is that a mechanical issue has to be failing so badly that someone outside of the facility is able to notice and then file a complaint to the state agency. A worried employee providing information would be the only other cause to investigate. According to TCEQ records, the plant has not been inspected since 2006 after a nearby resident complained of a "strong ammonia smell." A fine was issued for a "failure to apply for or obtain a permit."

The EPA fined the plant that same year, too. According to WFAA-TV in Dallas, the facility paid a $2,300 penalty for "failing to have a risk management plan that met federal standards." This is nothing more than a basic outline to ensure that chemical accidents don't happen and there are institutional safeguards that make these types of tragedies preventable.

Why the obvious, even more attendant risks were ignored in West, is a more unsettling question. The state issues the permits for nursing homes and it appears there was one virtually across the street from West Fertilizer, in spite of the known dangers of the manufacture of ammonium nitrate. Not far away, a building permit was granted for a small, two story apartment complex. Is this good judgment by state and federal, and even local agencies? It's not like ammonium nitrate fertilizer hasn't been known to detonate in the past. The 1947 explosion in Texas City of a ship carrying the compound killed 500 people and remains the largest industrial disaster in American history. West happened 66 years and one day after Texas City.

Texas is home to most of the nation's petrochemical industry, and it has provided jobs and important products. But we never seem to know if sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent events like West. In fact, we know the exact opposite. According to the 2011 budget submitted to congress by OSHA, which provides most of the federal oversight for that industry, there are 7.5 million workplaces in the U.S. and only 2,218 inspectors to check them for safety violations. The number of employed nationally means that there is one inspector for every 57,984 workers. One analyst reported that means OSHA has the capacity to inspect a business work place once every 129 years. Fortunately, state level OSHA workers aren't as pressed and they can get to a facility every 67 years.

West might be the latest failure of our commitment to provide the resources to protect our communities and our environment but there is no shortage of similar examples. The BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which continues to destroy sea life, was a product of lax enforcement, infrequent inspection caused by staffing shortages, and an intermingling of personnel between the regulated industry and the federal oversight agency. Generations from now the Gulf of Mexico will still be suffering and people may find it hard to understand what we allowed to happen in order to hold down our tax burden and to let industry create jobs and find energy without government meddling.

How damned many times do we have to see these images and fail to connect cause and effect? Americans continue to elect and tolerate politicians that tell them everything is fine and we don't need to invest in infrastructure and safety and there is too much regulation. There is no reason we can't have businesses that are both profitable and safe. But we have to be willing to spend the money to fund the agencies that provide the oversight. That's not government meddling; that's common sense. Elected leadership does not hesitate to spend your tax dollars on fear driven industries like the TSA or defense contractors, but a few inspectors or laws to keep a nursing home away from an ammonium nitrate fertilizer plant is considered too much government?

And now we have to endure those same politicians who are quick with the budget cut running to the site of the tragedy to claim empathy and understanding. How dare they? Why do we never demand accountability until people are dead? The owner of the plant was quoted on television as saying, "This kind of thing just isn't supposed to happen here." It isn't supposed to happen anywhere.

We just let it.