By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest
Newscasts these days often seem to be less a form of journalism than a kind of bizarre game show for paranoids: what horrible possibility should one worry about the most?
Most of the time, the main choice is between terrorism and gun violence, especially in recent days as the Boston Marathon bombings have shared the airwaves with the gun control debate in the Senate.
Now the horrific events in a small town in Texas provide a reminder of another danger, which for most of the population is actually a more significant threat: industrial accidents. As of this writing, the explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco is reported to have killed up to 15 people and injured more than 180 others.
If the past is any guide, the attention paid to this incident on a national level will fade much faster than the anxiety about the carnage in Boston or the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. The response of most people to terrorism and to gun deaths is to demand that government do something to curb the violence. When people die or are seriously injured in workplace incidents, there is a tendency not to see that as violence at all but rather as an unfortunate side effect of doing certain kinds of business. While labor unions and other advocates push for stronger enforcement of safety laws, corporations and their front groups usually succeed in keeping such regulation as weak as possible.
The truth is that corporations often show a brazen disregard for the safety of their employees -- and nearby residents. Probably the biggest workplace assailant in recent years has been BP, which even before the 2010 explosion at its oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers had been cited for atrocious safety violations at its refinery in Texas City, Texas, where 15 workers were killed and about 180 injured in a 2005 explosion.
BP initially agreed to pay a then-record $21.4 million in fines for nearly 300 "egregious" violations at the refinery, but in 2009 OSHA announced that the company was not living up to its obligations under the settlement and proposed an even larger fine -- $87.4 million -- against the company for allowing unsafe conditions to persist. BP challenged the fine and later agreed to pay $50.6 million. Apparently deciding it could not run the refinery safely, BP announced in 2012 that it was selling the facility.
In the list of the all-time largest fines in OSHA’s history, BP is at the top of the list. It’s interesting that the next largest fine involved another fertilizer company -- IMC Fertilizer, which along with Angus Chemical was initially fined $11.6 million (negotiated down to about $10 million) for violations linked to a 1991 explosion at a plant in Louisiana in which eight workers were killed and 120 injured.
The new incident at the fertilizer plant in Texas shows that risky business behavior is not limited to corporate giants. While many press accounts refer to the plant as West Fertilizer Co., the corporate entity is actually Adair Grain Inc., which according to Dun & Bradstreet has only eight employees and annual revenues of only a few million dollars.
Although the facility’s listing in the EPA’s ECHO enforcement database shows no violations and no inspections during the past five years (the period covered by ECHO), there have been press reports of an earlier citation for failing to have a risk management plan. The facility did not get an air pollution permit until 2007, after there were complaints about foul odors from the site. Last year, the company was fined all of $10,100 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for violations in the transportation of anhydrous ammonia. There is no indication in the OSHA database that the facility has ever been inspected.
It’s the same old story: a dangerous industrial facility with limited regulatory oversight finally creates death and destruction.
Footnote: Until the accident, the only time Adair Grain rose out of obscurity was in 2007, when under the name of its affiliate Texas Grain Storage it filed a federal lawsuit against Monsanto, charging it with anticompetitive practices in its sale of Roundup herbicides (U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas civil case SA-07-CA-673-OG). The case, which was brought with the involvement of ten mostly out-of-state law firms and sought class action status, appears to be dormant.