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Point Austin: The Cartoon Governor

Willful official negligence destroyed a Texas town

By Michael King, Fri., May 3, 2013

Between 2000 and 2010, according to the Global Terrorism Database, there were 3,033 American fatalities in terrorist attacks – 2,977 of those in the single attack on Sept. 11, 2001. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, during those same 10 years, there were 60,394 workplace deaths. Another way to look at it: In most years, an American is roughly 275 times more likely to die from a workplace accident than from a "terrorist attack."

I went looking for those statistics after a couple of weeks of watching news coverage of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, followed two days later by the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Both incidents were devastating, but in this particular context it's worth noting that three people died in Boston, with 264 injuries. In West, at least 15 people died (most of them first responders), and more than 200 were injured. Yet judging from relative news coverage – especially network and cable TV – one might think that the fertilizer explosion was little more than a random traffic accident, at worst a school-bus crash.

All deaths bear mourning, and I have no desire to rank them. And at first, the media obsession with Boston was completely understandable; homicides are inevitably more dramatic than "accidents," and we're often more alarmed by a murder across town than by a nearby car crash, even with more victims. But as the days go on, and the West disaster drifts into the nation's back pages, it's worth asking why, as a nation and a culture, we exaggerate the dangers of spectacular homicides and shrug at the daily (and preventable) carnage in our workplaces.

No Accident

Investigators are not yet certain of the precise cause of the West explosion, but it's clear enough from the early information that it was a massive "accident" prepared and waiting to happen. In an April 29 piece for the The Christian Science Monitor, UT law professor Thomas McGarity noted some of the most glaring official negligence. Since Texas has little or no safety inspection process, the badly understaffed U.S. Occu­pa­tional Safety and Health Administration has jurisdiction. "OSHA has inspected the West plant exactly once in the company's 51-year history. That 1985 inspection detected multiple 'serious' violations of federal safety requirements for which the company paid a grand total of $30 in fines." After a 2006 inspection, the Environmental Protec­tion Agency assessed a $2,300 fine for lack of a current risk management plan and other problems; the company response described no risk of fire or explosion.

ProPublica has also reported: "Fertilizer plants that hold more than 400 pounds of [explosive] ammonium nitrate ... are required to notify the Department of Home­land Security. ... The West plant held 270 tons – yes, tons – of the chemical last year, according to a report it filed with the Texas Department of State Health Ser­vices, but the plant didn't tell Home­land Security." In an interview with Counter­Spin, EPA senior analyst and whistleblower Hugh Kaufman was more blunt: "The company lied to [the] EPA when they said that there is no risk of fire or explosion at the facility, but ... they were honest with the state, because they know the state wouldn't do anything."

Finally, local officials – to whom the state of Texas delegates matters such as industrial zoning, although they often have little knowledge of the dangers involved – allowed residences and schools to be built near the plant.

Comfortable Perry

Politicians are full of passionate outrage at "terrorism," but can seldom muster even dismay at the institutional conditions and negligent oversight that lead inevitably – and many times more frequently – to industrial disasters. In the immediate wake of the West explosion, Gov. Rick Perry not only dismissed the role of government regulation in preventing such disasters, he insisted the voters like it that way. "Through their elected officials," Perry told the Associated Press, Texans "clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight."

That's not to say that the governor can never muster histrionic outrage. This week he's demanding an apology from syndicated cartoonist Jack Ohman, who had the gall to publish a cartoon mocking Perry's wooing of industry for "Low Tax! Low Reg!" Texas: "Business is booming in Texas!" declares the caricatured Perry – and the next panel depicts an enormous, "booming" explosion. Perry called the cartoon a "detestable attempt at satire," and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called for Ohman's firing.

Neither Perry nor Dewhurst could manage a single angry word about the unnecessary deaths of 15 fellow Texans and the complete, criminally negligent destruction of a small Texas town.

Ohman was admirably defiant, responding in part: "I think that when you have a politician traveling across the country selling a state with low regulatory capacity, that politician also has to be accountable for what happens when that lack of regulation proves to be fatal. That's exponentially more offensive to me."

A year ago in Los Angeles (Workers Mem­or­ial Day, April 26), Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said, "Every day in America, 12 people go to work and never come home. Every year in America, nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury from which some may never recover. These are preventable tragedies that disable our workers, devastate our families, and damage our economy. American workers are not looking for a handout or a free lunch. They are looking for a good day's pay for a hard day's work. They just want to go to work, provide for their families, and get home in one piece."

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