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Apr 21 2013

Our joyous Libertarian future

The last inspection by federal regulators of Adair Grain Inc.’s West Fertilizer Co. was in 1985. It was inspected by Texas regulators 7 times in the last ten years, and it has received a string of piddling fines — a few thousand dollars here and there. It was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate.

Lobbyists for the chemical industry are already complaining that there is too much regulation.

Lobbying groups for these plants say the risks are limited and they now face a panoply of regulations and oversight.

“It’s extraordinarily out of the ordinary to have this kind of experience,” Kathy Mathers, vice president of the Fertilizer Institute in Washington, said in an interview. “Both the producer and retailer side are heavily regulated.”

Oh, look at it’s prime location:

West-texas-map

A good chunk of that town was flattened, and many people killed and injured, when the plant blew up. Are those costs factored into the chemical industry’s profit-and-loss measurements, or are they advocating a reduction in regulation because they know they’ll never have to pay that price?

102 comments

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  1. 1
    anteprepro

    The parallels to the gun control debate are staggering. Liberty is the freedom to recklessly endanger others for fun and profit.

  2. 2
    Louis

    1) I work in the pharmaceutical industry. We need MORE regulation, not less. I have also worked in fine chemicals. Same story.

    2) Regulation is a pain in the arse. In many cases it is a necessary pain in the arse. Not universally so I admit, but to take this case as an example….yes, more regulation please. Nice and costly, creates jobs, what’s to hate? ;-)

    3) I mock homoeopaths and other peddlers of psuedo chemical woo, but the tricks my lovely industry use to muddy the waters make them look like knock-kneed unintelligent children by comparison.

    4) Thankfully, my industry also does non-zero good. Wahey! I just wish it was less an “industry” and more a “public service”. Ooops. I’ve gone all socialist again haven’t I?

    As per usual, this is a preventable disaster that will be blamed on “ZOMG evil Chemicals/Big Pharma” etc but is actually yet another result of deliberate lack of proper oversight in the interests of the more callous elements of capitalism. Didn’t something like that happen with banking recently? It’s almost like there’s a link…

    No. That can’t be it.

    [/snark] [/sarcasm]

    Louis

  3. 3
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Isn’t it always society that pays the cost? Exxon Valdez, the BP gulf spill, Three Mile Island, Love Canal, the Cuyahoga river fire, the Boston Molasses Disaster… I could go on, but I think the point is made. Society pays for the failures.

    And that’s why this whole “anti-regulation” crowd is wrong. No company operates in a vacuum, by themselves. They operate within society, and as long as their actions affect society, it’s society’s right to ensure the public risk is minimized. And the societal collective is managed by government, so it’s going to be government that ensures compliance to established risk-reducing standards.

    I really, really hope there’s a multi-billion dollar lawsuit that breaks Adair. That won’t bring back the dead, and it won’t erase the suffering. It won’t fix the problem, and it won’t change the way corporations behave.

    But I want to see fucking retribution.

  4. 4
    ButchKitties

    Not a direct parallel, but I’ve worked in a commercial kitchen. Yes, the health inspections could be a pain in the ass (they could also be no big deal), but so fucking what if they were? Our business put us in a prime position to make people sick. Inspect away.

  5. 5
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    It was storing 270 tons of ammonium nitrate.

    A whole industry set up for the war effort, to make explosives. That shit, just coincidently, can be used as fertiliser too. They seem to have forgotten that bit.

  6. 6
    dschultz

    270 tons of ammonium nitrate is not a large amount. Consider that applying 34 pounds of nitrogen per acre, a not unreasonable amount, requires 8 tons per quarter section or 32 tons per square mile. There are a lot of square miles of farmland around West.

    NFPA 400 has standards for the storage of AN but it seems unlikely that the town of West ever adopted a building or fire code that incorporated it. Naturally Texas has never adopted a state wide fire code and Governor Goodhair isn’t going to start now.

    In any case, NFPA 400 limits the size of AN piles to 20′X20′X50′ or about 600 tons. The 50′ length limit is removed if the building is non-combustible or has sprinklers allowing an unlimited amount.

  7. 7
    vaiyt

    This seems a case of needing not just more regulation, but needing better regulation. I live constantly surrounded by the results of good laws which are poorly enforced.

  8. 8
    vaiyt

    @dschultz

    270 tons of ammonium nitrate is not a large amount.

    Maybe not for farming, but as a fire hazard it’s another thing entirely, don’t you agree?

  9. 9
    rorschach

    (PZ, the “pay Slots and Bingo” malware popup is fucking annoying)

    Next on CNN, the manhunt for the federal regulators whose negligence killed 14 and hurt 180 people, live and nonstop for the next 36 hours, moderated by Wolf Blitzer.

    Oh, wait.

  10. 10
    carlie

    Boston was completely shut down in a huge manhunt to arrest/shoot the guy who killed 2 people.

    Every person involved in flouting the rules that directly led to this event that killed 16 people is sleeping soundly in their beds tonight and has no risk of ever serving jail time.

  11. 11
    raven

    Texas explosion: Ammonia or ammonium nitrate suspected – latimes …
    www. latimes. com/…/la-sci-texas-explosion-20130418,0,5957047.sto…

    3 days ago – A ship loaded with ammonium nitrate at a dock in Texas City exploded after a fire in 1947. The blast killed more than 500 people and leveled …

    What were they thinking?

    Ammonium nitrate is a common explosive. It was used in by McVeigh in the Oklahoma city bombing. It’s used in military munitions. It’s a restricted chemical these days so people don’t buy it and use it to blow up stuff. Or people.

    This has happened in Texas before. A ship carrying ammonium nitrate blew up and killed more than 500 people.

    It’s happened with other fertilizer plants.

    They really shouldn’t have houses, schools, and retirement homes within the potential blast radius. This is just common sense.

    This company was supposed to be removing and storing the nitrate away from the time as a standard safety precaution. At the time, they were storing 13 times their permitted amount according to a news account. If they were following simple safety precautions, the explosion would have been 13 times less powerful.

  12. 12
    carlie

    Jinx, rorschach! I had the window sitting open for too long before I hit send and yours wasn’t up yet.

  13. 13
    jaytheostrich

    “extraordinarily out of the ordinary” – OMG, call the redundancy police!

    At least homeopathy won’t cause explosions, or toxic spills.. Hey, what do you call a homeopathy spill? a pond..

  14. 14
    raven

    Boston was completely shut down in a huge manhunt to arrest/shoot the guy who killed 2 people.

    Yeah, I thought of that too.

    Two guys kill four people in Boston for some unknown but not good reason. Front page news for days.

    A badly sited fertilizer plant levels part of a town and kills 16 people. Well, things happen. Can’t get in the way of the job creators now, can we?

  15. 15
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Tragedies like this one are easily fixed. The first step is separation of the hazardous chemicals from the population through greenspace. Often this is done during the time the facilities are built, but, as the population expands, separation is harder to maintain as the required greenspace is seen as prime development land. The fault here is with the political units not requiring the greenspace be maintained around such facilities. It looks like there was a real failure at the local level in this case. No way schools should have been within spitting distance of such a facility.

    The second is true administrative controls by the company with emphasis on safety with storing and handling the chemicals. News reports indicate ammonia leaks were common, indicating a lax attitude about safety. When safety isn’t emphasized and enforced from top to bottom in a company’s culture, such things happen and aren’t fixed properly. The trouble is a true CAPA (corrective and preventative action) system does take some money and effort to run. But the results are worth it, and actually save money for the company at the end of the day.

  16. 16
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    It might seem out of order to use the word lucky, but it was lucky that explosion happened in the evening. Had it happened on a school day we’d have hundreds of dead and injured kids and teachers.

  17. 17
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Yet another example of regulatory success being its own worst enemy. We’ve been living, for so long (in the US), with the idea that major industrial accidents (whether due to incompetence or greed or whatever) are rare because, thanks to regulations, they are rare. Which means that the industries can then point to their pretty damn good safety record (we haven’t leveled a town with a fertilizer explosion in more than seventy years, don’t inspect us!) and ask for deregulation. Same for vaccines, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, OSHA, unions, the Voting Rights Act, and everything else that has made the US a better place to live.

  18. 18
    OptimalCynic

    Does anybody know which was built first, the plant or the schools? This may be a failure of zoning. It’s not uncommon for a factory to be built an appropriate distance from anything, until the suburb grows around it.

  19. 19
    Who Knows?

    But, the free market will fix this problem. Now that they’ve destroyed a town and killed a bunch of people nobody will buy their fertilizer. See, problem solved.

  20. 20
    barbyau

    And this state, that is a pioneer for all our worst conservative policy options, will once again beg for aid from the much hated federal government. After repeatedly voting down aid for victims of a hurricane that the Eastern seaboard did not create by policy, they will beg for money to fix what their policies create.

    Being a liberal, I’m not inclined to tell Texas to go fuck itself and refuse to give them aid.

    I am leaning towards giving them the aid on the condition that they follow through on their promise to secede. I only want what’s best for them in their quest for self-sufficiency.

  21. 21
    Rawnaeris, Lulu Cthulhu

    This has pissed me off beyond belief. Any half-trained chemist could have looked at that situation and known it was bad.

    The fact that no one reported the situation and that the regulatory agencies didn’t do their jobs offends me. (I’m also an auditor)

    The fact that this leveled the better part of a small town is a fantastic reason for more and better-enforced regulations.

  22. 22
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    But I want to see fucking retribution.

    Fuck yes.

  23. 23
    Trebuchet

    This comment at Zingularity indicates nearly all that infrastructure was built after the fertilizer plant.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/zingularity/2013/04/20/fundamentlism-rand-paul-libertarianism-in-one-simple-image/#comment-43247

  24. 24
    dorght

    You can’t blame the fertilizer company for the proximity of the schools etc. Really need to ask the question of who was there first? I’m betting sprawl encroached on the fertilizer site rather then vice-verse.
    Giving that it is a farm community they need fertilizer, and it is located adjacent to the rail lines like you would expect and away from what appears to be downtown. I was using Google Earth to look at this and then I turned on historical images and saw the High School was built close by in the last ten years. Unfortunately Google Earth’s images only go back to 1995 so I cannot determine from this source when the other school etc were built.

  25. 25
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    They also took advantage of regulatory nitpicking [PDF] to claim on their filings that they did not have any flammable chemicals.

  26. 26
    Muz

    The fire was burning for a decent while before it went up too, was it not?
    I didn’t notice any attempt to evacuate the area in the reports. Was there any?

  27. 27
    Ken Kohl

    Obviously, they are doing it wrong in Texas. They need to take a page from our example in Western New York. Rather than blowing up buildings and people, we’re just ‘killing them softly’ with our industrial waste legacy.

    http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130420/CITYANDREGION/130429843/1002

  28. 28
    mythbri

    I work in environmental health and safety, so I’ve been paying particular attention to this.

    (Copy pasta from the blog post I wrote about this)

    Although the specific causes of the fire and resulting explosion at the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company are as yet unknown, what we do know is that this company stored and distributed large amounts of anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate as agricultural products.

    Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) exists as a white crystalline solid. Its property as an oxidizer is why it’s used in explosive devices as well as fertilizer. The safety guidelines for storage of ammonium nitrate require that it be segregated from urea, acetic acid and other organic compounds, and fire fighting measures require the use of flooding quantities of water rather than jets of water – remember ammonia’s exothermic properties? On a scale from 0 to 4, the NFPA rating for reactivity is 3.

    On April 16, 1947 (the third week of April seems to be historically significantly hazardous) the SS Grandcamp was docked in the Port of Texas City. Along with some small arms ammunition and machinery, it carried about 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. The Grandcamp had diverted to the Port of Texas City after being denied berth in Houston, where the port authority had prohibited the loading/un-loading of ammonium nitrate.

    At approximately 8:00 AM that morning, smoke was spotted in the cargo hold of the SS Grandcamp, possibly started as a result of a crewman flicking his lit cigarette away (extinguish your butts, people!). The crew of the ship unsuccessfully fought the fire for about an hour – every attempt to douse it or control it failed, and a red glow reappeared each time.

    By 9:00 AM, spectators had started to gather in the harbor, noting that the water around the ship had started to boil. They watched as the captain of the ship ordered his crew to try to extinguish the flames by piping steam into the cargo hold, increasing the internal pressure of the cargo hold so much that the sides of the ship began to bulge.

    The vessel detonated at 9:12 AM. The spectators who had gathered to watch the fire, believing they were a safe distance away, were obliterated. The blast was so huge that it caused a 15-foot wave that traveled nearly 100 miles away from the coast of Texas.

    In Galveston, 10 miles away, people were knocked off their feet from the force of the blast. In Louisiana, 100 miles away, people felt the shock of the explosion. Airplanes flying nearby were ripped apart. The detonation of the SS Grandcamp is considered to be one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions, and is the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.

    The official casualty count was 567, including all of the crew of the SS Grandcamp, but this may well be inaccurate (on the low side) as many of the victims were burned to ashes or blown to tiny bits. A single member of the Texas City volunteer fire department survived. Fire departments from nearby areas were unable to approach the site of the explosion because of the intensity of the resulting fires. About 5,000 people were injured, mostly by shrapnel.

    The first explosion of the SS Grandcamp ignited the SS High Flyer, which was moored nearby and also carried 961 tons of ammonium nitrate. 15 hours after the initial explosion, the SS High Flyer also detonated, killing at least two more people.

    The Texas City Disaster resulted in the first class-action lawsuit filed against the United States government on behalf of 8,485 victims. Industrial re-construction costs incurred as a result of the disaster eventually reached an amount of $100 million (in 1947 dollars – the equivalent cost today would be about $1.03 billion).

    Although OSHA is a federal agency, many states have their own Occupational Safety and Health agencies, which have adopted the federal regulations and may impose stricter state regulations if they deem it necessary. They may not, however, remove any of the federal regulations.

    Texas is not an agreement state, so federal OSHA has jurisdiction over all of the regulated workplaces there. Many news organizations have noted that the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company had not undergone an OSHA inspection since 1985.

    This does not surprise me, for several reasons:

    OSHA cannot perform planned or regular inspections for every workplace under its jurisdiction – it doesn’t have the time or the manpower to do so. Instead, OSHA’s inspection priorities fall in this order:

    -Imminent Danger Situations: Workplace hazards that could immediately cause serious injury or death get top priority. Compliance officers will ask employers to remove potentially affected employees and correct the hazard.

    -Fatalities and Catastrophes: Incidents that involve a death or the hospitalization of three or more employees will trigger an inspection. This is the type of inspection that OSHA will conduct regarding the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company. I’ll be reading that report when it’s released, believe me – but high-profile and high-casualty inspections take a long time to complete. I estimate that this one may take up to a year.

    -Complaints: Allegations of hazards or violations, which may be filed by employees anonymously. (I’ve dealt with this type of inspection myself – it took three months to resolve.)

    -Referrals: Information regarding hazards that come from sources outside the company, such as the media, other regulatory agencies or other companies.

    -Follow-ups: Personal verification of abatement for hazards identified in previous inspections.

    -Planned or Programmed: These inspections target high-hazard industries, or companies that experienced a high rate of work-related injuries or illnesses.

    So you can see that the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company, not belonging to a specifically high-hazard industry may well escape the attention of OSHA for a long period of time, especially if they’ve had otherwise good or fair safety records.

    Another aspect that must be considered in the case of this plant explosion is the company’s relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency. Like OSHA, the EPA is a federal agency but may not have direct jurisdiction in every state. My state, for example, is an agreement state with the EPA as well. The guidelines here are similar – states with individual environmental agencies must adopt all of the federal regulations and may impose additional regulations if necessary.

    Outside of the state-run agencies, however, the EPA requires companies to provide notification when those companies exceed certain thresholds of hazardous substances. This information is vital, because the EPA disseminates the information to the state and local emergency response organizations. This is how first responders are made aware of the hazards of any given workplace, should they need to respond to an emergency.

    West Chemical and Fertilizer company had reported quantities of 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110,000 pounds of anydrous ammonia to the EPA. So, my previous question about whether or not West Chemical had reported over-the-threshold quantities of the ammonium compounds has been answered in the affirmative. However, the article states that the reporting was done late last year, which is concerning. If this reporting is the type I’m thinking of, the numbers should have been submitted by March 1st of last year and of this year – so at face value, it looks like the company wasn’t quite on top of it.

    It also seems as though the plant was so old that it was grandfathered into regulations back in 1962, and should have completed a re-authorization process in 2004. It didn’t.

    The SS Grandcamp was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate. West Chemical last reported 270 tons.

    Multiply this explosion by 8.5, and you might have some idea of the size of the Texas City Disaster (trigger warning for explosion and related trauma):

  29. 29
    Ingdigo Jump

    Iirc the factory argued to town that it was safe and thus could be fine to be near schools and shit so yes you can blame them for the proximity

  30. 30
    DLC

    Where I live, the owners of a fertilizer plant much like the one that blew up moved the place back in the 90s when it became clear that urban sprawl had made the current locale unsound. The owners of this plant could have done the same. Yes, with an immediate cost in profits. But now look at what they have. Lesson Learned : better safe than sorry.

  31. 31
    timgueguen

    Sometimes the civic authorities don’t help. Last month Regina city council approved the construction of a new subdivision between an oil refinery and a steel plant, despite the refinery telling them they didn’t think it was a good idea.
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/story/2013/03/18/sk-regina-neighbourhood-1303.html

  32. 32
    Trebuchet

    Sen. Ted Cruz, who called aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy “pork”, is demanding expidited federal aid for the West explosion. No doubt he’ll be making sure most of it is directed to the owners of the plant so it can be rebuilt.

  33. 33
    slatham

    #19, no no, it’s like this isn’t it?: in a more libertarian society, if the explosion occurred during the day, the parents could send their surviving children to alternate schools, and thereby the free market would punish the schools that blew up.

  34. 34
    Air

    @18 OptimalCynic

    This would be a failure of zoning if West, Texas had any. I have searched their Code of Ordinances and there are no restrictions that most of us would recognize as ‘zoning’ in them. A section on subdivisions is about all. If you want to take a look, go here:
    http://z2codes.franklinlegal.net/franklin/Z2Browser2.html?showset=westset

  35. 35
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Dang mythbri, that video was spine-chilling. There should be no fires or smoking at a site like that. All fork-lifts and transfer vehicles should be intrinsically safe. But I heard on the news they often burned used wooden pallets there, instead of paying for proper disposal. And I bet propane or gasoline forklifts/vehicles were used inside.

  36. 36
    Lynna, OM

    Corporations are outsourcing the cost of mistakes, accidents, and even criminal charges to the public.

    Lack of regulation, or finding sneaky ways around regulation allows them to do this. More money for them. More death and financial cost for us.

  37. 37
    w00dview

    Wow, it tales some gall to already start whining about those awful regulations just after your plant fucking explodes. That extraordinary short sightedness even for corporate lobbyists. Besids whenever I hear about how tough regulations are on businesses, 99% of the time it just means “but abiding by regulations is soooo HAAARRRRDD, why can’t you government meanies just let us make profits without insisting we have any standards!” They realise they sound like they don’t want to bother making the teensiest bit of effort to make things safe and cause minimal environmental disruption so they start talking about how tough the big ol’ government is on them and their little lapdogs the libertarians will defend their FREEDOM to do what the fuck they like and how the poor widdle corporations are being oppressed. It takes some propaganda effort to turn unbridled greed into liberty but they succeed time and time again. It is maddening.

  38. 38
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    Air:

    This would be a failure of zoning if West, Texas had any.

    This is a multi-tier regulatory failure. Zoning would only have mitigated the devastation. Internal corporate inspections should have resulted in remedial action. State inspections (which they failed several times, resulting in minimal fines) should have resulted in harsher penalties. Federal inspections should have enforced existing federal regulations.

    This is not simply the result of a single failure. This was systemic incompetence.

  39. 39
    mythbri

    @Nerd

    There are several internal policies that are required by OSHA that West Chemical should have had in place, and I think that it’s clear that if they did have these plans then they were simply compliance place-holders and not the basis for active safety management.

    Hot work procedures, emergency response contingencies, fire prevention plan, evacuation plan – this is the bare minimum.

  40. 40
    burgundy

    I was just reading an article in the Houston Chronicle about this.

    1) The company reported their ammonium nitrate storage to the Department of State Health Services, but not to the Department of Homeland Security, despite those 270 tons being 1,300 times the level that triggers federal oversight. It’s not just that the regulations are insufficient; they’re neither centralized nor organized. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a permit in 2006, but while they noted the proximity of 2 schools, their mandate only included determining whether the plant would affect the air quality there. Th State Chemist does frequent evaluations, but only to enforce laws about packaging, labeling, and testing for contaminents. And the Commission on Fire Protection does not oversee volunteer fire departments, so there was no way to ensure an inspection by a fire safety expert, which might have addressed safe storage. And so on.

    2) Muz @26: there was some response to the fire on an individual level. For instance, the medical director of the nursing home heard about the fire on his scanner, so he went to the nursing home and started safety measures, but that was really just intended for the fire. They weren’t expecting an explosion. I get the impression of a certain amount of complacency and trust: the plant has always been here, of course nothing catastrophic that can happen, it’s just a fire. There was one neighbor who saw the fire and immediately he and his wife got into their car and drove off – but he knew about the ammonium nitrate and knew what it could do.

  41. 41
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Hot work procedures, emergency response contingencies, fire prevention plan, evacuation plan – this is the bare minimum.

    Happy to report all this and more is in place where I work. We also carry out monthly inspections of all safety and other equipment by department (I’m it for my department for this quarter), and we have working “near miss” reporting system so that potential problems get looked at before something happens.

  42. 42
    jacksprocket

    Just one word, almost forgotten: Bhopal.

  43. 43
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    When will businesses learn that well-designed governmental regulations can actually help them? In the absence of regulations, you as a responsible fertilizer business owner may want to take necessary precautions to keep your product from blowing up (and to keep from killing your employees and clients), but of course that adds to the price of your product, so when Discount Fertilizer (slogan: Our Shit’s Cheap!) down the road starts undercutting your prices, your forced to either stop taking those precautions or go out of business.

    But if the feds are forcing the competitors to live up to your standards, you can compete without sacrificing your commitment to safety.

    There must be a flaw in my logic. I can’t imagine what it could be….

  44. 44
    mythbri

    @jacksprocket

    Not forgotten by me. I’ve read and re-read the case study. Video can be found on YouTube, but it is not for the faint of heart.

  45. 45
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    When will businesses learn that well-designed governmental regulations can actually help them?

    The problem is, the regulations help them in the long run. Corporations, those with stockholders especially, are optimized for short-term (well, shorter-term, anyway) maximum profits. If a regulation means that over the next twenty years, it will cost x dollars to comply, and those x dollars per year in ‘lost’ prophets mean that there is a reduction in the chance of a catastrophe that would cost x*20, then it maximizes short term profit to not have the regulation. After all, when the catastrophe happens, the CEO and management will still be rich and, most likely, it won’t happen on their watch.

  46. 46
    raven

    When will businesses learn that well-designed governmental regulations can actually help them?

    One thing is for sure. That fertilizer plant isn’t going to be making much money for a long time.

    Even if their insurance covers some costs, it probably won’t cover everything. Assuming they even had any.

    Penny wise and pound foolish.

  47. 47
    raven

    We have a saying in science.

    “There is never time to do it right. But there is always time to do it over.”

    We’ve all discovered that the hard way, one day or another.

  48. 48
    sundiver

    Raven, my favorite: “Faster, Better, Cheaper. Pick two.”

  49. 49
    evilDoug

    I keep seeing the place referred to as a “plant”. I think of a plant as a place that either manufactures or processes something. I can see no evidence that the place actually did either, and found one report referring to it as a “depot”, which I think is likely much more accurate.
    Chances are that everything distributed from that point arrived by rail and left by truck. There are probably thousands of very similar operations across the continent.
    At a “plant” I would expect there to be at least a few people with some reasonable level of expertise on the materials they deal with. At a depot, chances are most of the workers, outside of the sales office, fall somewhere between unskilled laborer and truck driver. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the truck drivers were better versed in handling safety than the depot management (things can get pretty ugly very fast with sloppy handling of anhydrous ammonia).

    Many Canadians will remember the Hub Oil explosion in Calgary and the propane explosion in Toronto. Major safety hazards are everywhere. Ignorant, incompetent fools are everywhere. Governments and business rely on them heavily. The public sends them money and elects them. They replicate.

  50. 50
    Crissa

    Texas doesn’t ‘do’ zoning. Trolls I often talk to are proud of that.

    They’re strangely silent today.

  51. 51
    Larry

    I wanna know what numbskull city planner screwed this up! There isn’t a daycare center or children’s hospital anywhere near that place! How did they let that choice real estate go to waste?

  52. 52
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Barbyau:

    I am leaning towards giving them the aid on the condition that they follow through on their promise to secede.

    Yeah, let’s fuck over all the folks of color, GLBT people, PwD, women, atheists, kids, and whoever else in states like Texas, just so those of us who live elsewhere can can continue to feel superior to them. Also, having a hostile state on our southern doorstep? AWSUM. Maybe they’ll get their own nukes someday.

    Dorght:

    You can’t blame the fertilizer company for the proximity of the schools etc. Really need to ask the question of who was there first?

    As others have said, zoning laws could have made this question moot. They didn’t, for the same reasons of ideology that PZ criticizes.

    Nigel:

    Zoning would only have mitigated the devastation.

    True, and I agree with the rest of your comment, but if there were proper zoning in West a few more people might yet be alive.

    Crissa, if you want to see some anti-zoning trolls in action today, look at the thread to the Bloomberg article in PZ’s OP.

  53. 53
    jacksonp

    If only the government had the power to chose where to build their schools. If only there was a supreme court case that gave local government almost unlimited power to take land as they see fit.

    Please, the location of the schools was due to government decisions, not a lack of zoning laws. In fact, West, Texas has zoning laws and a zoning board. This is the result of poor government.

    I’m sure the victims of West, Texas appreciate you using their tragedy to try and score points about something unrelated.

  54. 54
    Dez Crawford

    Well, ya know, one regulation just leads to another … and before you know it, Obama will be making us register our fertilizer plants so he can take them away.

  55. 55
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    Just one word, almost forgotten: Bhopal.

    This might be of interest.

  56. 56
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Well, ya know, one regulation just leads to another … and before you know it, Obama will be making us register our fertilizer plants so he can take them away.

    *Cue them music to the Twilight Zone*

  57. 57
    sharoncrawford

    “Kathy Mathers, vice president of the Fertilizer Institute”

    Your mother must be so proud.

  58. 58
    mdcaton

    PZ: you must be aware by now that most libertarians are not market fundamentalists opposed to all regulation. Just like most atheists are not clueless 19-year-old male idiots that think women are their personal property, and just like most atheists are not Mao or Stalin. Yes, there are a few idiots, but to constantly try to make this connection that libertarian = zero regulation, you’re being as dishonest (or at best, clueless) as Christians who try to claim all atheists are murderers-in-waiting.

    Now, pleasantly surprise me by not banning me from commenting and not removing this comment.

  59. 59
    Rutee Katreya

    If only the government had the power to chose where to build their schools. If only there was a supreme court case that gave local government almost unlimited power to take land as they see fit.

    Government needs to build schools close to where the kids are. And do you SERIOUSLY want to see eminent domain exercised more, over industrial regulation?

  60. 60
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    ou must be aware by now that most libertarians are not market fundamentalists opposed to all regulation.

    If so, they haven’t posted here and explained what regulations they don’t automatically oppose and why. Your “no true liberturdian” explanation is dismissed *floosh* as sewage without evidence. And typical of liberturds, no evidence is in sight. Must a character flaw where your word *snicker* is more important that third party evidence….

  61. 61
    chigau (違う)

    mdcaton #58
    You’re new here aren’t you?
    Banning is not done for such mild comments as yours.

  62. 62
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    PZ: you must be aware by now that most libertarians are not market fundamentalists opposed to all regulation.

    We’ll believe it when we see it.

  63. 63
    mdcaton

    Chigau, I’m pleased. I’ve been reading Pharyngula for 5 years but only rarely read the comments. Nerd of Redhead, you seem like someone who doesn’t like having your assumptions questioned, so you respond with flippant comments. I’d like to think the readers of this blog have a knowledge base that extends beyond the comment section on this same blog. If your knowledge of anything (libertarianism, Marxism, evolution) is based on the comments at Pharyngula, which is what you stated above, then I suggest you spend 10 minutes on Google learning a little bit more about the world. I also invite you to surprise me by responding with two sentences summarizing the positions of moderate libertarianism, rather than with more predictable comments that illustrate your impressive confirmation bias.

  64. 64
    hfj001

    To complete the picture, you could add the square-ish green area north of the middle school and south of the playground to the list of interesting things in the plant’s neighborhood, because that is the local baseball field.
    Every time I took a look at the satellite image of the town in the last days, I could not help but ask myself what they might have been thinking to build in direct vicinity to such a facility (or vice versa)? That feels just insane, regardless of who was there first.

  65. 65
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    If your knowledge of anything (libertarianism, Marxism, evolution) is based on the comments at Pharyngula, which is what you stated above, then I suggest you spend 10 minutes on Google learning a little bit more about the world.

    I know about liberturdism. I gave it fifteen minutes of though twenty years ago and realized it was morally bankrupt and unworkable. Nobody has shown me evidence otherwise in the intervening years, showing nothing but sloganeering and godbot acceptance of the theology of liberturdism without being able to show it works. Nor have you for that matter. Show me the thirty years of a first world country using those principles. In the US, try post Civil War to circa 1900. What does the real and total evidence say.

    I also invite you to surprise me by responding with two sentences summarizing the positions of moderate libertarianism, rather than with more predictable comments that illustrate your impressive confirmation bias.

    Show me the evidence. There is no such thing as moderate liberturdism. You are all delusional fools who follow a theology, not an evidence based politico/economic system.

  66. 66
    raven

    PZ: you must be aware by now that most libertarians are not market fundamentalists opposed to all regulation.

    We’ve never seen that.

    There might be one somewhere but it is hiding under its rock or bridge.

    Most Gibbertarians are rather incoherent and their beliefs are a lot like religion, shifting by the hour depending on murky intrinsic and extrinsic variables.

    To take one example, the Tea Party thinks it is the height of collectivist commie-ism if the government tries to limit people’s constitutional right to buy mortars and land minds. They also want to outlaw all abortions, including medically necessary ones to save the life of the incubator.

    Just like most atheists are not clueless 19-year-old male idiots …

    Libertarians are more like 16 years olds and slow for their age. I myself was a teenage libertarian. For a few weeks until I realized how stupid it is. We’ve tried it many, many times, it always fails. Most of the third world is Libertarian. Which is exactly why it is…the third world.

    It’s not unusual for them to hold Somalia up as a true Looneytarian paradise. No government and you can get as rich as you want to. They also hate Moslems, not realizing that Somalia is also an Islamic paradise.

  67. 67
    raven

    Please, the location of the schools was due to government decisions, not a lack of zoning laws. In fact, West, Texas has zoning laws and a zoning board. This is the result of poor government.

    The zoning laws and zoning boards are part of the government.

    We will never know why they let two schools and a retirement home be built next to a potential bomb. I suspect they got the land for cheap. Who wants to live in a house near a potential industrial disaster?

    They did the same thing in Bhopal India. That chemical plant was supposed to have a buffer around it. What they did is let poor people settle around it instead because the land was open and unoccupied. I’m sure someone made some money off of that, somewhere.

  68. 68
    Avo, also nigelTheBold

    mdcaton:

    I also invite you to surprise me by responding with two sentences summarizing the positions of moderate libertarianism, rather than with more predictable comments that illustrate your impressive confirmation bias.

    (Emphasis mine.)

    Ah! I see what you’re doing here. You’re setting up all the libertarians who come here and argue that any regulation is bad as No True Libertarians.

    In general, the libertarians I know (and have run into here in the comments section) tend to say exactly that. The claim is that government interference of any kind is coercion, and coercion is bad. This includes taxes (which are required for any kind of construction and enforcement of regulations), industrial regulation, and personal regulation (such as the ability of a small business owner to discriminate against anyone they wish).

    In fact, I have been told on several occasions that opposition to government coercion is the heart of libertarianism. This is not at conflict with the statement on http://libertarianism.com/:

    Libertarians believe that each person owns his own life and property, and has the right to make his own choices as to how he lives his life – as long as he simply respects the same right of others to do the same.

    This does not conflict with your view of moderate libertarianism (I assume — you’ve not stated what you consider to be True Libertarianism), but it also does not conflict with the hardcore libertarians we’ve argued against here (and IRL) that claim any kind of government coercion is bad.

    So while government regulation may not conflict with your ideal of Libertarianism, we have most definitely crossed paths with those for which it does.

  69. 69
    The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs)

    @Ms. Daisy Cutter, #52:

    Yeah, let’s fuck over all the folks of color, GLBT people, PwD, women, atheists, kids, and whoever else in states like Texas, just so those of us who live elsewhere can can continue to feel superior to them. Also, having a hostile state on our southern doorstep? AWSUM. Maybe they’ll get their own nukes someday.

    Considering that permitting Texas to continue to be a part of the U.S. harms vastly more people in a large number of ways than would be harmed by kicking them out, I think that your argument is basically without merit. (To say nothing of the fact that we could do an exchange program: the poor-but-non-stupid could find someone stupid outside of Texas and swap with them before a certain deadline. As for the “what about the children” plea, well, what about all the children outside of Texas who are getting bad educations because their textbooks and lesson plans are designed to sell in Texas, Land Of The Stupid? Better to help out the majority of them than make everyone suffer for a tiny number of notional Good Kids down there.

  70. 70
    The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs)

    Oh, and I’d like to jettison Florida, too — less because of Teh Stupid (although that’s a part of it) then because it’s going to be, literally, a dead end soon. Here’s an exercise: go check how much the ocean levels are expected to rise as the ice caps melt, and then look at an elevation map of Florida.

    (Spoiler: Florida post-global warming will be a stub about the size of Massachusetts.)

  71. 71
    sadunlap

    @ #58 mdcaton

    but to constantly try to make this connection that libertarian = zero regulation

    From:
    What is Libertarianism

    “It’s a dessert topping!” “No, it’s a floor wax!” “Wait– it’s both!”

    This diversity of libertarian viewpoints can make it quite difficult to have a coherent discussion with them, because an argument that is valid for or against one type of libertarianism may not apply to other types. This is a cause of much argument in alt.politics.libertarian: non-libertarians may feel that they have rebutted some libertarian point, but some other flavor libertarian may feel that his “one true libertarianism” doesn’t have that flaw. These sorts of arguments can go on forever because both sides think they are winning. Thus, if you want to try to reduce the crosstalk, you’re going to have to specify what flavor of libertarianism or which particular point of libertarianism you are arguing against. [emphasis mine]

    Telling us off for not knowing about your particular flavor of libertarianism will not help much. It carries with it the implicit assertion that your flavor is so important, so … right, that we are fools, fools I tell you!!! for not knowing about it already. Most here do not share your sense of your own or your views’ importance. You are neither the first nor, sadly, the likely to be the last to behave this way.

    If you’re interested you can try out your flavor here and see how it stands up to evidence-based criticism. Others have tried.

    Hint: try checking out Libertarians : Pharyngula Wiki first, to see what you’re up against.

    Best of luck.

  72. 72
    mikeyb

    If corporations are people, why don’t they face the death penalty for killing people. Of course, they are only people to the extent that they benefit from society, not that they pay back or are accountable to society. Externalities are BS in the world of right wing market fundamentalism.

  73. 73
    mikeyb

    One more thing – 90% of liberturds are Ayn Rand weenies, even so call intellectual ones like Ron Paul and Alan Greenspan. Ayn Rand liberturdism has and continues to do great damage to many impressionable young minds.

  74. 74
    ck

    If corporations are people, why don’t they face the death penalty for killing people.

    No one should face the death penalty. It’s a barbaric practice that has no place in a just society.

  75. 75
    NightShadeQueen, resident nutcase

    No one should face the death penalty. It’s a barbaric practice that has no place in a just society.

    I’m assuming that a “death penalty” for a corporation involves dissolving the corporation, which is a) more reversible and b) involves no one actually dying.

  76. 76
    marthabie

    Since Texas clearly can’t be trusted to enforce any regulations and the federal government isn’t any better, I propose all regulation be reduced to the following three rules that can be enforced whether regulators do their job or not:

    1. If a corporation is found liable for wrongful death in a civil suit, the judge is required to award $5 octillion in punitive damages.

    2. Any corporation found liable for wrongful death is automatically pierced, and its owners/shareholders are held responsible for its debts after it declares bankruptcy.

    3. Any executive with meaningful authority to control the corporation’s actions is required to cosign for any debts it may occur as a result of wrongful death.

  77. 77
    Jadehawk

    PZ: you must be aware by now that most libertarians are not market fundamentalists opposed to all regulation.

    LOL

    libertarianism is the belief that only negative freedoms exist and that the freedom to control all your property is one of the most important ones of these freedoms (depending on the flavor of libertarianism); regulations impinge on both of these principles of libertarianism.

    now, if you mean you’re against systemically entrenched power structures, and against exclusion of people from decision-making about things that affect them as well as against powerful structures impinging on the human rights of people, then you’re an anarchist; not a “moderate libertarian” or whateverthefuck.

  78. 78
    Jadehawk

    I work in environmental health and safety, so I’ve been paying particular attention to this.

    (Copy pasta from the blog post I wrote about this)

    you have a blog, and you sometimes write about environmental health and safety on it? want.

  79. 79
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I also invite you to surprise me by responding with two sentences summarizing the positions of moderate libertarianism, rather than with more predictable comments that illustrate your impressive confirmation bias.

    Moderate libertarianism (unless this is equated with the “what do you MEAN, the label ‘libertarian’ has been irrevocably co-opted” strain of, say, Ed Brayton), so far as anyone can tell, differs from immoderate (conservative? fundamentalist?) “I’ve-got-mine-fuck-you/let-them-eat-cake” narcisso-capitalism primarily in that its advocates spend a lot more time whining that they’re being misrepresented and they aren’t like those other people….without ever explaining how, or giving some evidence that the same criticism isn’t equally applicable to their positions.

    Sound about right?

  80. 80
    mythbri

    @Jadehawk

    I do have a small and (mostly) silly blog. This is the first post I’ve written about OHS/EHS subject matter, but I’ve found that I really enjoy it and may do more, along with the silliness I usually write about.

    Here’s a link if you’re interested.

    http://geekinthebreeze.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/ammonia-compounds-and-industrial-disasters/

  81. 81
    Muz

    (thanks Burgundy, up at #40)

    I’d say most libertarians I’ve encountered usually say of course they’re “not opposed to aall regulation” and claim to be moderate. But suggest poor or lack of regulation could be at fault for any given problem and they will oppose that notion seemingly on principle.
    So I guess they’re not opposed to aaall regulation, they just can’t think of any they’d support.

  82. 82
    vaiyt

    Will the real libertarians please stand up? Please stand up? Please stand up?

  83. 83
    madscientist

    I hope competent people are having a good hard look at possible sabotage. The stuff is a great oxidant but you still need something combustible to get an explosion. It’s been many decades since the last big explosion in such a fertilizer factory and for good reason: the risks are all well known and not difficult to ameliorate.

  84. 84
    Maureen Brian

    madscientist,

    From w-a-a-a-y over here in Yorkshire I have been able to disern that

    * the amount of the explosive substance on site was well above the limit at which it was supposed to be reported because too much of the stuff is dangerous

    * there was the practice of burning pallets on site – see notes above on pressure and temperature for safe storage

    * a fire was reported and filmed well before the explosion

    * the fire-fighters either did not have the equipment to put the fire out immediately or didn’t realise how dangerous it all was because several of them were still on site when the thing blew and were killed

    * the pattern of both Federal and State inspections may well have been inadequate

    * the works was far too close to housing and public buildings

    * as some safety expert from Australia noted on BBC days ago – sorry, did not record his name – there is no bunding around the site, nothing to catch even 10% of what was thrown out when it exploded.

    OK! None of that rules out sabotage but on the Occam’s Razor principle it gives us quite enough possible causes to be working on without going in search of vandals, terrorists and boogeymen.

    The risks at Bhopal were known to people with degrees and experience in the right branches of chemistry, so the managers put in charge a local guy who was not quite as confident, not quite as knowledgeable. Then they leant on him to cut corners, cut costs, change time-consuming procedures. And look what happened! Look what is still happening there.

    Or are you arguing that every single resident of West, Texas, had either a chemistry PhD or deep knowledge of ballistics and could thus have judged precisely the degree of risk with which they were living? And that they were happy to take that risk?

  85. 85
    dianne

    In my ideal world, people who operate obviously dangerous equipment (be it cars or fertilizer factories) in a known unsafe manner, including ignoring citations, would be at least as liable for any damage they cause as idiot kids with bombs would be. The fertilizer manufacturer killed more people than the terrorist did and, I expect, caused about as much terror.

  86. 86
    doublereed

    Shh…. you aren’t supposed to mention “externalities.”

  87. 87
    JV B

    Forgive me if somebody else pointed this out (I only scanned the comments), but one important point about regulation, is that in a competitive market, cutting safety corners gives you a competitive advantage. Absent well enforced regulations, standard will tend to edge downwards. It is important that people understand this dynamic in case they end up debating with Libertarians. You further need to understand that
    1. Purchasers of products are not interest in how the product is processed, only in the quality of the product
    2. Reputation effects (often raised by Libertarians as the alternative to regulation) are only relevant if their are relatively few firms and tend to count against ease of entry to the industry. But the benefits of the free market depend on competition and free entry.
    3. Reputations effects will only work if information is widely and freely available (so will require independent inspections).

  88. 88
    chigau (違う)

    1. Purchasers of products are not interest in how the product is processed, only in the quality of the product

    sez who?

  89. 89
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    1. Purchasers of products are not interest in how the product is processed, only in the quality of the product

    Never worked in the Pharma industry, have you?

  90. 90
    Air

    @53 Jacksonp
    @67 Raven

    While it is true that West, Texas has what they call a zoning ordinance and a zoning board, they lack almost every other element of good zoning practice. No master plan, no land use category definitions, no restrictions on locations of any structure at all, no setback requirements, etc. Their zoning is almost exclusively concerned with making sure subdivisions are build to code. This is zoning in the same way that environmental health and safety is a pair of noseplugs.

    I provided a link to their ordinances above.

  91. 91
    Amphiox

    One of the things that always struck me when I was living in Texas was how you could walk down a street and go from residential areas to industrial and back again in a matter of a few blocks (with a school and a hospital stuffed in there somewhere for good measure.

    I don’t know what kinds of zoning laws they use, but they are of a kind quite unlike the usual types.

  92. 92
    David Marjanović

    Naturally Texas has never adopted a state wide fire code

    And there I thought I was out of words!!!

    (PZ, the “pay Slots and Bingo” malware popup is fucking annoying)

    Firefox with Adblock Plus. No popups ever.

    They also took advantage of regulatory nitpicking [PDF] to claim on their filings that they did not have any flammable chemicals.

    Which *facepalm* is completely true: NH4NO3 isn’t something that reacts with oxygen, it’s a provider of oxygen. It just so happens to explode in heat.

    Just one word, almost forgotten: Bhopal.

    Texas is now officially in the Third World, where the ones with the gold make the rules.

    I’ve been reading Pharyngula for 5 years but only rarely read the comments.

    I still don’t understand why anybody would do that. Have you never disagreed with a post or had questions about it?

    I do have a small and (mostly) silly blog. This is the first post I’ve written about OHS/EHS subject matter, but I’ve found that I really enjoy it and may do more, along with the silliness I usually write about.

    Your post about Pluto and the Titius-Bode law is awesome. You’re good at blogging. Just saying.

    I hope competent people are having a good hard look at possible sabotage. The stuff is a great oxidant but you still need something combustible to get an explosion.

    Or you can just kick it too hard.

    But burning pallets on the site *headdesk* should really suffice.

  93. 93
    Crissa

    Why would you burn pallets, anyhow? Does no one in Texas need scrap lumber?

  94. 94
    WharGarbl

    @David
    #92

    Which *facepalm* is completely true: NH4NO3 isn’t something that reacts with oxygen, it’s a provider of oxygen. It just so happens to explode in heat.

    Sort of like how some people don’t think 100% pure oxygen is dangerous.
    Add a few more nitrogen to the mix… you got a self-sustain heat-source + oxygen, aka, once it gets something burning? It will keep it burning, fast.
    Above knowledge came from a chemist friend of mine. Who pretty much says the following.
    When in doubt, if it contains nitrogen, it’s most likely unstable (read, explosive).

  95. 95
    myeck waters

    Crissa

    Why would you burn pallets, anyhow? Does no one in Texas need scrap lumber?

    Behold, the Taylor Pallet guitar. No excuse for just burning the stuff, unless you want a fire that is.

  96. 96
    David Marjanović

    When in doubt, if it contains nitrogen, it’s most likely unstable (read, explosive).

    Quite. Here’s another way to put it:

    “It’s when they get put in with the wrong sort of company that they turn delinquent. What with four nitrogens in the ring and only one carbon, they do have a family history of possible trouble – several sections of this blog category could just as accurately be called Things That Suddenly Want To Turn Back Into Elemental Nitrogen. And thermodynamically, there aren’t many gently sloping paths down to nitrogen gas, unfortunately. Both enthalpy and entropy tilt things pretty sharply. A molecule may be tamed because it just can’t find a way down the big slide, but if it can, well, it’s time to put on the armor, insert the earplugs, and get ready to watch the free energy equation do its thing right in front of your eyes. Your heavily shielded eyes, that is, if you have any sense at all.”

  97. 97
    WharGarbl

    @Crissa
    #93

    Why would you burn pallets, anyhow? Does no one in Texas need scrap lumber?

    It’s cheaper than to call the trash/recycling company to pick it up?

  98. 98
    madscientist

    @maureen#84: I’m not saying the general population in Waco should all know the hazards or that there are any terrorists involved, just that the explosion should be treated as suspicious by any arson investigator. Assuming that it was simply ignorance and that makes it OK is crazy.

  99. 99
    Maureen Brian

    I didn’t say ignorance made it all OK. Not when there’s no excuse at all for that ignorance. Wherever did you get that idea?

  100. 100
    Jason

    And yet the residents are defending the owners. Not surprised, really. This is what happens when one is spoonfed from birth the idea that business is never, ever responsible for anything bad while the government is never, ever responsible for anything good. This is what it looks like when the slaves come to love their chains.

  101. 101
    mythbri

    @Jason

    This is a town of less than three thousand people. I’m not saying they’re right to defend them, but can you see how difficult it would be to blame your friends/neighbors/family for such a disaster?

  102. 102
    Amphiox

    When in doubt, if it contains nitrogen, it’s most likely unstable (read, explosive).

    Except for N2, which is one of the most stable molecules in existence.

    Of course, that stability is a major reason why just about everything else with N in it is unstable….

    I’m no chemistry expert, but it strikes me that putting NH4 (reduced nitrogen) right beside NO3 (oxidized nitrogen) just can’t be a good thing….

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