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Smoke rises as water is sprayed at the burning remains of a fertilizer plant after an explosion at the plant in the town of West, near Waco, Texas early April 18, 2013. The deadly explosion ripped through the fertilizer plant late on Wednesday, injuring m
The cause of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion that killed at least 14 and injured 200, as well as destroying dozens of buildings, is still unknown and the damage is still being assessed, but even without the full story known, plenty of toxic Texas politics has been on display. Texas politicians are eager for the federal disaster aid they voted against when it was New York and New Jersey that needed it in the wake of Sandy, and the zoning laws that let a school and homes be right across the street from a fertilizer plant should be a scandal. And it's become clear that, whatever the immediate cause of the explosion, the plant was a menace to its workers and the town, enabled by Texas-style weak regulation and oversight.

StateImpact Texas points out that at some points in 2012, the plant stored more than 100 times as much ammonium nitrate as Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing. The plant, meanwhile, had no sprinklers or fire barriers, but had been burning wood pallets in recent months. Such a disregard for safety doesn't just create the conditions for fires and explosions, it also creates additional dangers for first responders, and the West Fertilizer Co. plant wasn't the first such situation in Texas in recent years. For instance:

In 2011, a fire started at the Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahachie. Locals had to be evacuated. But first responders didn’t know what chemicals were inside or that the building didn’t have adequate sprinklers.
In the West explosion, the majority of those killed were indeed first responders, who did not have any way of knowing the scope of what they faced. And those killed deserve to be remembered despite the fertilizer plant explosion having happened in the same week as the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent dramatic hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As Richard Kim writes:
What separates these victims from one another? Surely not innocence, for they are all innocent, and they all deserve to be mourned. And yet the blunt and awful truth is that, as a nation, we pay orders of magnitude more attention to the victims of terrorism than we do to the over 4,500 Americans killed each year while on the job. As former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis once put it, “Every day in America, thirteen people go to work and never come home.” Very little is ever said in public about the vast majority of these violent and unnecessary deaths. And even when a spectacular tragedy manages to capture our collective attention—as the West explosion briefly did, as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster did three years before—it is inconceivable that such an event would be constituted as a permanent emergency of world-historic proportions.
Whatever precise combination of accident and chemicals and lack of safety precautions caused the West explosion, chances are, it was political. Not political in the sense that someone actively intended or tried to cause damage, but in the sense that it was made possible by a state government with intentionally weak safety and environmental regulations and federal and state governments that don't put the needed resources toward enforcing what regulations should apply to a place like the West Fertilizer Co. Political in the sense that as a society we basically have agreed that disasters like this are, as Kim puts it, "the presumed cost of living in a modern, industrialized economy." We should take disasters like this one as a reminder of the recklessness with human life that our political and economic systems tolerate and even encourage.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 11:43 AM PDT.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions and Daily Kos.

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