Even though more lives were lost and structural damage was more widespread, the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, got lost amid the drama unfolding in Boston. The Texas blast killed 14 people and injured almost 200 and, as in the marathon bombings, there were numerous heroes among the first responders and average citizens who rushed to help others.
It’s still too early to pinpoint a cause. But it’s not too soon to lament the lax regulatory framework in which the West Fertilizer Co. plant reportedly operated. Public safety is government’s top priority, and early indications are that regulation of potentially lethal chemicals — and their proximity to residents — was far from ideal.
A Huffington Post story pointed out that it had been nearly 28 years since the plant was fully inspected. A partial safety inspection by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Commission in 2011 did result in a $5,200 fine for several infractions.
Also in 2011, according to the story, the private owners of West Fertilizer filed an emergency-response plan stating that there was no risk of fire or explosion at the facility. Officials did acknowledge to the Environmental Protection Agency that there was a risk that a small amount of ammonia gas could be released.
Whether more inspections would have averted the tragedy is unknown at this time, and may never be certain.
But the West story is yet another reminder of the need for often politically unpopular, but completely necessary, government regulation.
It’s easy for politicians, voters and media pundits to be hostile to regulations. “Big government,” “bureaucratic red tape,” or “the nanny state” are commonly used labels for what critics see as too much federal, state or local oversight.
But the reality is that the need for regulation will most likely increase as technology creates products and processes that bring both promise and risk for global consumers.
At the heart of the matter are public-safety and consumer-health issues. Poor regulation can increase risk for businesses, too. A foodborne salmonella outbreak, for instance, can cause devastating damage to the perception of an entire crop, causing consumer demand, and agricultural livelihoods, to plummet.
The Texas tragedy should reinforce the role state regulators play in monitoring similar facilities in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture inspects the 287 anhydrous ammonia equipment and storage systems at permitted storage facilities about every three years, according to a spokeswoman.
Anhydrous ammonia, which is widely used as a nitrogen fertilizer source in Minnesota, is classified as a hazardous material and is highly regulated. (Ammonium nitrate, which also was being stored at the Texas plant, is also a hazardous material but is not widely used by Minnesota farmers.)
The bombings that overshadowed the Texas tragedy have been met with admirable American resolve to spare no effort to keep citizens as safe as possible from foreign or domestic terrorism.
We should have the same resolve, and be willing to invest accordingly, when it comes to regulating industry in the interest of public safety.