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“Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in the future, but future and past are intertwined.” Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams.
Tragedies can leave a person speechless – the transformation of buildings used by people every day into rubble, with smoke and debris rising in eerie gloom seems beyond words. The West Fertilizer Company plant exploded at 8:51 p.m. Wednesday, April 17. After the shock, people want to know what caused the event. Public officials and concerned citizens are called upon for answers. In this week’s column, we will let their words count.
Hours before the explosion, Gov. Rick Perry could be heard in radio ads broadcast before a BIO International Convention in Chicago. “This is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and I have a word of advice for employers frustrated by Illinois’ short-sighted approach to business: you need to get out while there’s still time. The escape route leads straight to Texas, where limited government, low taxes and a pro-business environment are creating more jobs than any other state. I’ll be in Chicago next week to talk about opportunities in Texas, where we’re always open for business. Visit TexasWideOpenforBusiness.com – it may be time for your company to hit the emergency exit.”
Within a few hours after the explosion, Gov. Rick Perry issued a press release: “We are monitoring developments and gathering information as details continue to emerge about this incident. We have also mobilized state resources to help local authorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of West, and the first responders on the scene.”
President Obama also saluted the rescue workers. “I want to thank the first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to contain the situation and treat the wounded. My Administration, through FEMA and other agencies, is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure there are no unmet needs as search and rescue and response operations continue.”
Also on May 18, McLendon County Deputy Sheriff Matt Cawthorn told CNN that his sheriff’s office; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the state fire marshal’s office were working “to determine the exact cause of the situation.”
Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton was widely quoted as early as 5:35 a.m. that “there were no indications of criminal activity, but that wasn’t being ruled out.”
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told reporters the day after the disaster was “way premature” to determine whether any criminal charges could be sought in relation to the deadly explosion.
NPR’s State Impact Team reported Gov. Perry’s statement in an April 19 press conference, responding to a question about whether the state should “do more” to regulate and zone industrial facilities. “Listen, if there’s a better way to do this, we want to know about it. If there’s a better way to deal with these events, we want to have that discussion, whatever that might be.”
Donald Adair, owner of the West Fertilizer Plant, vowed to prevent future incidents. “My heart is broken with grief for the tragic losses to so many families in our community. This tragedy will continue to hurt deeply for generations to come … (our company will ) do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community.”
Gov. Perry responded to questions again on Monday, April 22, saying that Texans are comfortable with the level of safety regulation and inspections. “(People) through their elected officials clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight. We follow regulations of the EPA.”
On April 23, Bryan Shaw, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that his agency was not responsible. “We don’t, at TCEQ, evaluate the explosive threat associated with these types of facilities. We look at the environmental and health impacts,” such as routine air emissions.
The Dallas Morning News reported that Tim Herrman of the Texas State Chemist’s Office said his agency has no legal authority or expertise to pursue fire or explosive safety at places that store ammonium nitrate. “That doesn’t fall within our purview, and it’s fair to say we are not fire-safety experts,” Herrman said. “Nor is that part of our inspection activity, nor is that in our law or rules.”
The State Impact report also quoted Elena Craft, a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “Historically, fertilizer plants have not been given the level of attention of scrutiny that other industrial or petrochemical facilities have received. We’ve always touted Texas as a place open for business. The fact is, our jobs should not cost us our life. And that’s what we’ve seen throughout the history of Texas.”
Kelly Haragan, Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law: “In Texas, counties have almost no regulatory authority. And we kind of don’t like land use [policies] in Texas. So we’ve ended up where facilities are very close to people. You hope that we can implement some changes, so we don’t have to wait until a plant explodes and people are killed, before you come in and try to do what just seems like common sense: people shouldn’t be living so close to some of these industrial facilities.”
On May Day, KXAN News in Austin reported that Texas State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy told a legislative hearing that 80 investigators are still digging through the rubble, targeting May 10 for investigators to complete their probe into the origin and cause of the fire and explosion.
“We literally have to sift through all the soil — all the items that exploded out of the plant, collect those, try to reconstruct the facility. We are well down that path. But (May 10) is an approximate date. Don’t hold us to that. Everything will be touched. It will be analyzed and it will be looked at.”
Editorial cartoonists were quick to draw the links between Texas’ gung-ho business attitudes, permitting oil, chemical and other industries to operate without “undue” interference. Combined with low taxes, it’s the model that conservatives throughout the nation hold up as a means to lower unemployment and stimulate growth. One editorial cartoon in the Sacramento Bee caught Gov. Perry’s attention. One frame showed Gov. Perry touting Texas’ economic boom. The adjacent frame depicted the West explosion with a cartoonist’s “Boom.” Perry was offended. He wrote a letter to the editor.
“It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon. While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans. Publishing this on the very day our state and nation paused to honor and mourn those who died only compounds the pain and suffering of the many Texans who lost family and friends in this disaster.”
The number of times West Fertilizer Co. was required to answer to environmental and safety inspectors can be counted on one hand. The number of people killed and injured in the blast is a known number, as is the number of chemical plants and other industrial sites within harm’s way of residential areas, and we can also count the number of people working for those companies. When corporate leadership and public officials are ready to stand up and take responsibility for their decisions and invest in safe, clean materials and processes, they deserve great tribute. I will be among that number, when the saints come marching in.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a principal in Extraordinary Words. He offices most days at Geekdom. He will be taking your pledge calls on Tuesday and Wednesday morning at Texas Public Radio – do your part for independent radio journalism and classical music in San Antonio.