While the Texas explosion has been overshadowed by the Boston Marathon bombing and Friday's manhunt for Dzhokhan Tsarnaev, this explosion also raises major questions about public safety and the function of government. In 2010, 4,690 workers were killed on the job, an average of 13 every day. The government agencies tasking with inspecting worksites and ensuring safety are terribly understaffed, business owners and managers are rarely charged with crimes even for willful violations leading to worker deaths, and even fines for worker deaths are routinely negotiated down to shockingly low numbers. We don't yet know what kind of justice the owners of the West Fertilizer Co. will face. But we do know that the plant fit into America's patterns of weak oversight.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had not inspected the plant since 1985, when it was cited for five serious violations and fined $30. Yes, 30 whole dollars. The company has also been fined in recent years, including by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for not having filed a risk-management plan and for safety violations, respectively. Friday, reports emerged that the anhydrous ammonia that was widely known to be at the plant and which had featured in the 2011 risk-management plan in which the company said the plant posed no risks was not the only product being stored there. The plant:
[...] had informed a state agency in February that it was storing up to 270 tons of ammonium nitrate—the highly explosive chemical compound used in the domestic terror attack on the Oklahoma City federal building. [...]So there's still a lot to be learned about how this happened, but whatever the answers, it's a virtual certainty that no one will go to jail for this deadly explosion. It's important to remember, though, that while most deaths on the job don't make the news outside their immediate areas, death on the job is a daily occurrence, and justice is rare.
It's not clear whether the ammonium nitrate, which was not initially reported as being present at the site in the wake of Wednesday's massive blast, was responsible for the explosion, or whether volunteer firefighters battling a fire at the facility knew of its presence. Under state law, hazardous chemicals must be disclosed to the community fire department and to the county emergency planning agency, in addition to the state.