Chemical Plant Job Dangers: More Regulations Needed
There has been a seeming proliferation of deadly explosions at a number of chemical plants, including two at the end this week in Louisiana. And of course, everyone remembers the fire and explosion that devastated the small town of West, Texas in April. This spate of tragic events has led to a serious debate about whether or not state and federal governments are effectively regulating those plants and enforcing regulations regarding such plants.
While the two Louisiana chemical plant explosions this week were comparatively minor, except to the families of the two people killed and 80 injured, the casualty count in the West Explosion — 15 dead (mostly first responders) and about 180 injured —shocked a great many people. A recent Dallas Morning News investigation in which they interviewed fire marshals in a number of small counties, found that almost all of them had paid a visit to their local fertilizer plant to take a look – some for the first time in several years.
That’s Texas, though. Nationally, nearly 1,300 people died in more than 30,000 incidents involving chemicals, including spills and explosions. Late last year, the federal Congressional Research Service pinpointed more than 2,500 facilities that risk the lives and health of 10,000 people if there was an accident. That’s 10,000 each. That’s a lot of risk to a lot of people, and he risk is especially high for those in poor and minority communities, because it’s cheaper to locate them in those areas, and because such areas tend to have more lax zoning laws.
Despite the risk, it doesn’t look as if anyone has been looking closely at these plants. Before last month’s tragedy, West Fertilizer was storing as much as 270 tons (540,000 pounds) of ammonium nitrate at any given time, and no one from the state or federal governments seemed to care. They were able to operate without a permit until 2006 (no one knows how long they operated before then), and the last time any federal agency had been to the plant was in 1985, when OSHA paid a visit and fined the company for minor workplace safety violations. And while the company reported the 270 tons of ammonium nitrate to the state of Texas, the state didn’t report it to the Department of Homeland Security, which requires that amounts of more than 400 pounds be reported.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in 2009 that would have required the riskiest plants to switch to safer technology, but the Senate filibustered the legislation, so it didn’t become law. Another bill was introduced early this year, but no one expects it to pass in the current environment. Some chemical companies have voluntary switched to less lethal ingredients, but it’s not enough. States and local governments will have to pick up the slack, but in the meantime, the EPA, DHS and even OSHA will have to use the powers they already have to put a dent in the problem.