“How come there’s no manhunt for the owner of the Texas factory…?”

Mike Elk, labor reporter and staff writer for In These Times Magazine, in the Washington Post:

On Friday, as cable news networks sought desperately to fill airtime while waiting for the latest news in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, a friend asked me, “How come there’s no manhunt for the owner of the Texas factory, which did far more damage than the Boston bombers?” He was right to wonder.

The explosion of the West Fertilizer Co. plant on April 17 in West, Tex., killed 14 people, injured more than 160 and destroyed dozens of buildings. Yet unlike the tragedy in Boston, the Texas plant explosion began to vanish from cable TV less than 36 hours after it occurred. Marquee correspondents like Anderson Cooper were pulled out of West and sent back to Boston, and little airtime was spared for updates from Texas, even as many town residents remained missing. The networks seemed to decide covering two big stories was covering one too many, as if we journalists can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. The media’s neglect has greatly increased the danger that the explosion will quickly be forgotten, to the detriment of U.S. workers.

The coverage so far of the Texas disaster is a far cry from the gold bar of workplace safety reporting, set by Walter Cronkite in 1968 following the Farmington, W.Va., mine explosion, in which 78 miners were killed. Then, Cronkite camped out for four days in a field in the middle of winter and provided in-depth stories on the mine explosion and its aftermath. Cronkite’s impassioned journalism is widely credited by workplace safety advocates as inspiring the passage of the first federal mine safety legislation: the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Since the legislation was enacted, the number of coal mining accidents have plummeted from 311 in 1968 to just 19 in 2012…

For those of us who covered the Upper Big Branch explosion and have continued to report its investigation three years later, many of us fear that once again knowledge of why a massive workplace disaster occurred — knowledge that could save lives in the future — will be kept out of the public discourse because the media simply won’t cover it. Has a single worker employed at the fertilizer plant been interviewed on cable TV? Where are the crowds of reporters trying to find the owner of the plant? And what about experts being rolled out to discuss what caused the explosion and how those responsible for this disaster will face justice?

After all, while it remains difficult to deduce the motives of the alleged Boston bombers, it is not so difficult to postulate what was behind the explosion at the West Fertilizer Co.’s plant: the failure to follow the science of workplace safety. The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger. Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done. And there was little chance that regulators would learn about the problems without the company reporting them: Not only had the Occupational Safety and Health Administration not inspected the plant since 1985 but also, because of underfunding, OSHA can inspect plants like the one in West on average only once every 129 years….

With so many lives at stake, it is the duty of the media to, at the very least, dedicate as much reporting to West, Tex., as we do Boston. Indeed, the unbalanced coverage, some would argue, could have negative consequences across the board. As Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, who has covered the Upper Big Branch mine explosion more than any other reporter, tweeted, “Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention — so we give that to them.”






43 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:

    Since the legislation was enacted, the number of coal mining accidents have plummeted from 311 in 1968 to just 19 in 2012…

    See, government programs do put a damper on growth.

  2. 2
    Chris says:

    “How come there’s no manhunt for the owner of the Texas factory…?”

    Is there any law under which he could be charged, or is it simply that such law exists but is unenforceable because the justice system has decided not to care? I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end…

  3. 3
    Elizabelle says:

    Bruce Machart op ed, New York Times: “Only an Accident”

    …In the first hours after the fertilizer plant explosion, many commenters had wondered about the likelihood of foul play or terrorism. But once it was deemed an industrial accident, the hysterical coverage tapered off. We had nothing to fear from West; we could stop paying attention.

    We tend to discount that which is accidental as somehow less tragic, less interesting, less newsworthy than the mayhem of agency. Lives have been “lost” in Texas, but in Boston, by God — lives have been “taken.”

    So which claims more lives and injuries?

    Not the one that benefits the military-industrial complex.

  4. 4
    RSR says:

    Mike Elk is a bit of a loud mouth–in a good way. And he had a comeuppance a while back. But I’m glad to see him getting his work published in a larger venue. He’s paying his dues, earning his way, and it’s paying off (if not paying well).

    I follow Mike on twitter, and if you’re pro-labor (or wish you were!) you should too: https://twitter.com/MikeElk

  5. 5
    lojasmo says:

    @Chris:

    There are. The factory was supposed to report at 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate. They had, IIRC, 259K pounds? Something outrageous, anyway.

  6. 6
    lojasmo says:

    Edit fail: Resulting in a bunch of deaths. Negligant homicide. Of course, it would probably be the factory supervisor or some underling.

    http://www.unionleader.com/art.....92/-1/news

    Stupid FYWP. Assuredly open to civil llitigation.

  7. 7
    gelfling545 says:

    @ElizabelleLives were taken in both cases: through malice in Boston and through indifference in West but in both cases the lives of others were deemed less important than their personal goals by the perpetrators.

  8. 8
    Mandalay says:

    @Baud:

    the number of coal mining accidents have plummeted from 311 in 1968 to just 19 in 2012…

    Why does Obama hate the funeral industry?

  9. 9
    PeakVT says:

    Have the 60 or so people initially reported as missing been accounted for? I can’t find a clear statement.

  10. 10
    Walker says:

    The story of the owner is actually a sad one, as far as I can tell. He bought the conpany five years ago, with little experience, from the people that instituted the old policies. He did it to keep the plant in town, which was going to pull out (and everyone wanted it there).

    Now the plant manager is a different story. He had been there and overseen everything from the 70s.

  11. 11
    PurpleGirl says:

    It is also possible that the fertilizer company reported many things through a trade association which aggregated the data.

    (In 1980 I worked in a corporate law office of a multi-product manufacturer, multi-subsidiary conglomerate. I worked for the attorney who followed the Federal rules and regulations and who dealt with the trade associations. Many of the things that needed reporting by the company went through various trade associations such as Grocery Manufacturers Association.)

  12. 12
    RSR says:

    @Walker: Wouldn’t surprise me. Local-oriented investor left holding the bag for a dangerous and now deadly operation. Deadly hot potato.

  13. 13
    amk says:

    Wanna bet that this thread won’t get more than 25 posts ? IIRR, there were 4-5 bj threads on boston, while texas was ignored.

  14. 14
    max says:

    @Chris: Is there any law under which he could be charged, or is it simply that such law exists but is unenforceable because the justice system has decided not to care? I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end…

    http://www.statutes.legis.stat...../PE.19.htm

    Sec. 19.01. TYPES OF CRIMINAL HOMICIDE. (a) A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual. [P](b) Criminal homicide is murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.

    Sec. 19.04. MANSLAUGHTER. (a) A person commits an offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual. [P](b) An offense under this section is a felony of the second degree.

    Sec. 19.05. CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE. (a) A person commits an offense if he causes the death of an individual by criminal negligence.[P](b) An offense under this section is a state jail felony.

    That’s 15 (or more?) counts of the above.

    This is in no way inclusive of federal criminal law, which may be applicable given that the plant may have been violating federal (anti-terrorism!) law regarding ammonia nitrate fertilizer while in operation.

    Walker: The story of the owner is actually a sad one, as far as I can tell. He bought the conpany five years ago, with little experience, from the people that instituted the old policies. He did it to keep the plant in town, which was going to pull out (and everyone wanted it there).

    That does suck, but it doesn’t get him off the hook. That said, if the plant manager knew better, then he too would be on the hook. If the plant manager BS’ed the owner into not doing what needed to be done here, then the plant manager owns it (and vice versa).

    max
    [‘The lightening is a (literal!) act of God. Storing 250 tons of ammonia nitrate in buildings lacking a lightening rod is negligent.’]

  15. 15
    Mary G says:

    This is appalling. And why don’t I think that plaintiff attorneys will be welcomed with open arms in West, Texas?

  16. 16
    NotMax says:

    @max

    Oy. Pushed a major pet peeve button there.

    Lightening is what bleach does.

    Lightning is the electrical phenomenon.

  17. 17
    Nutella says:

    “Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention — so we give that to them.”

    Stenographers.

    Even when it’s murderers who want them to write a story in a particular way, the MSM dutifully writes down what their subjects expect them to write.

  18. 18
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    It seems that the local first responders in West had little idea of what they were dealing with. That makes me wonder how many more places there are that are unprepared for accidents at facilities that are “doing something with chemicals.” There are also all of the towns through which the railroads run tank cars full of hazardous stuff with little or no provision for dealing with a large release of chlorine gas or something worse.

  19. 19
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: Lots of places like West, lots. Factories and plants of all kinds do not publicize the fact that they aren’t obeying the law. Combine that with volunteer responders, who probably aren’t trained well and there is a disaster waiting to happen.

  20. 20
    Yutsano says:

    @PurpleGirl: No one wants to rock the boat either, because that small plant is the only job source in town. If that gets shut down the town will die and often the remaining residents don’t have the resources or job skills to relocate. It’s not like they can just wake up one day and they’re all cowboys and cattle herders again.

  21. 21
    mcd410x says:

    Since corporations are people, I’m sure the company is going to be charged with murder, right?

  22. 22
    Sandia Blanca says:

    I wondered the same thing–it was days before the coverage of the West explosion even mentioned who owned the plant; this story was in Saturday’s paper: http://www.statesman.com/news/.....mes/nXRxY/

  23. 23
    Tehanu says:

    The story of the owner is actually a sad one, as far as I can tell. He bought the conpany five years ago, with little experience, from the people that instituted the old policies. He did it to keep the plant in town, which was going to pull out (and everyone wanted it there).

    So what? Having good intentions when he bought it was all he had to do? Paying attention, learning the law, dealing with whatever came up — those things weren’t necessary? What’s his excuse for sheer moral and intellectual laziness? How is that better somehow than greed and selfishness?

  24. 24
    RaflW says:

    Yeah, and then there’s this (via Dallas Morning News):

    Despite West explosion, Rick Perry sticks to his anti-regulatory schtick
    In an interview with The Associated Press Monday, Gov. Rick Perry dismissed the notion that the disaster in West could have been prevented if inspectors and regulators had done their jobs better. I guess this means we’ll just have to accept getting blown out of our homes every now and then. It’s a part of how Texans do their bidness.

  25. 25
    Dead Ernest says:

    @amk:
    AMK, while I certainly agree both with you, and the essence of this post, that a big damn deal is not getting all the attention it should, you’ve gotta agree that Boston had many, many more facets to its story that the Fertilizer plant does.
    There are simply many more conversations, rebuttals, issues to the incident in Boston

    If, in theory, each story was addresses as thoroughly as could be, there’s more that would be said about Boston than Texas.

    (Btw, bet this is # 25 or higher)

  26. 26
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Yutsano: Sadly, that’s true.

  27. 27
    RaflW says:

    @Chris: Donald Adair, the owner of the plant, does appear to have a reckless disregard for keeping explosives out of the hands of terrorists.

    Since Adair acquired the plant, it has been fined more than $12,000 by federal regulatory agencies for shortcomings that include not updating a risk management plan and failing to develop a security plan to prevent materials from being stolen by would-be terrorists.

    But just like we can’t possibly regulate explosive black powder shells sold as back yard fireworks, we probably won’t really take seriously that McVeigh could have blown up dozens of Murrah Buildings with the amt of ammonium nitrite in West, TX.

    These f*cking republicans are soft on terrorism. They really, truly are.

  28. 28
    1badbaba3 says:

    @amk: Don’t despair. When Greenwald finds a way to blame Obama (for being soft on workplace terrorism) that’ll get the place jumpin’. Sadly, it always does.

  29. 29
    trollhattan says:

    Don Blankenship got caught red-handed as authoring a memo basically saying screw trivial safety concerns our job is to dig coal. Then, the Big Branch explosion occurred and 29 men died. Big Don’s punishment was a sweet, sweet golden parachute retirement package.

    Yeah, the guys in Texas are quaking in their (really expensive) boots.

  30. 30
    RaflW says:

    @Dead Ernest: There might be more that could be said/written about Boston than West, but the larger point still stands: we mostly ignore things like plant explosions once the fire is out. They are sort of shockingly routine in a way. And that says a lot about how the “culture of life” is utter bullshit by Republicans. Pure, unalloyed marketing crap to extract right wing Christian dollars and votes.

    If there was an iota of a culture of life in the Republican party, something as crass as the Perry statement I linked to above would be repudiated. Because saying there’s no way to avoid the deaths in West (or future Wests) totally cheapens and denigrates the sacrifices of the volunteer Fire and EMS people and all the victims who died.

    Of course massive plant explosions could become more rare. But that would place safety – and life – above profit. Hah.

  31. 31
    Meg says:

    Yesterday Chris Hayes had one of the resident from West on his show.
    It appeared that most people did not know about the risk the plant posed.
    It has been there for so long that they are just used to it being there.

    Also most people are not even mad at the owner. They actually felt bad for him since they are all friends and went to school together. They just don’t think he wanted this to happen.
    Talking about wonderfully forgiving people…

  32. 32
    RaflW says:

    @Meg: It does appear that he’s more a hapless local than some ruthless global corporatist. I agree with whoever above said the plan manager has some serious things to answer for. And I’d add that the fine for past errors suggest he may have been hapless, but also warned that he needed to up their game.

  33. 33
    Dead Ernest says:

    @RaflW: whole heartedly agree with you about that. But I think AMK’s measure of BJ comments twixt the two events was more driven by how many current storylines have been ‘in the air’ over the course of the past few days.

    Just why that has been the case has likely been due to too much foolish noise about Boston and too much foolish avoidance about Texas.

  34. 34
    1badbaba3 says:

    @trollhattan: Too big to jail, perhaps?

    @Meg:Sounds like a variation of Stockholm Syndrome. And Bosses who show such a reckless disregard for the safety and well being of others are not friends, they’re called “Massa”.

  35. 35
    RaflW says:

    @Dead Ernest: And we’ve passed 25 total comments, but John’s OT about Django is over 100.

    End of the day, people would rather chill and talk about whatever, I get that. But we can’t just take a pass on West. Or on Perry’s reckless disregard for basic regulation and safety. That shit’s just morally wrong.

  36. 36
    Dead Ernest says:

    @RaflW: again, I’m in complete agreement with you, from ‘@’ to ‘reply’
    An early bedtime, for a change, this evening so;
    Cheers & Goodnight.

  37. 37
    RaflW says:

    10-4. Over and out.

  38. 38
    ricky says:

    Ahhh…progressive reportage in action!

    “Factory” manhunting time.

    The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger.

    What hooey. If anyone can point me to a law or regulation that sets a limit on the amount of ammonium nitrate this or any other fertilizer dealer is allowed to possess I’ll eat a plate of naturally produced horse fertilizer. Yes, they had a huge amount of ammonium nitrate on hand and they reported it in 2012, for safety purposes, to the Texas Department of Health. They did not report it, under rules adopted post 9/11 to the federal Department of Homeland Security, which adopted the rules to prevent terrorists from blowing it up or stealing it, neither of which appears to have happened in this tragic event. Now, since they were reporting it to the state agency, but not the feds, does that indicate intent to deceive by the owners, or incompetence by the feds, who already had a data base of facilities, including the West Fertilizer Company, who reported they had big stocks of anhydrous ammonia on hand to EPA, a clear tip off that they probably had ammonium nitrtate as well since both are popular products with farmers growing less than organic goods for local consumption.

    But wait, there’s more!

    Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done.

    I’ll have a second helping of equine dung if the author can point to any legal requitrement for a blast wall around any fertilizer dealer who stores and peddles ammonium nitrate.
    As for the other items, I’ll bet when the reporting by trained inspectors is done, sprinklers, shut off valves and fire alarms wouldn’t have done squat to stop what happened. And I wouldn’t be surprised that several of those items our reporter says weren’t there probably were, since he is relying on other linked reporters whose writing his has mischaraterized.

    So where are the calls for an immediate mobilization of the troops (ala Boston) to inspect the literally thousands of other fertilizer dealers (this is a filling station and mixing pharmacy for farmers, not a manufacturing outfit) all across the country? Wouldn’t that be more productive than a manhunt for the owner of this plant, who has probably been in West since the fire broke out.

    Hey, haven’t we known these facilities were threatening lives since we learned of the disastrous consequences back in 1947, when a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer caught fire in Texas City, Texas setting in motion an explosion on that ship, another nearby ship, and an on shore chemical plant?

    Why yes we have. And have the operators of this “plant” been violating rules adopted in the wake of that disaster since they built the place back in 1962? And did city leaders in West ignore national zoning standards for fertilizer plants by allowing the residential neighborhoods and school to be located nearby after the plant was built? No and no. Because neither exist. The regulations in place, with which this “plant” has a spotty history of complying with, do not prevent or even really address the conditions under which this plant operated or the town surrounded it.

    And to the best of my research, since this “plant” was
    built in 1962, neither this nor any of the thousands of similar facilites like it across this country have exploded.

    But don’t let that stop us from comparing the local owner of this facility to a terrorist in need of manhunting based on non existent or misstated facts from a lousy journalist.
    Because we are better than the misinformed knuckledraggers
    screaming in ignorance. Even if we don’t know what caused either the fire or explosion.

    Like I said in jest earlier, we need to demand the death penalty for these criminals. That way when Obama and Holder do not personally perp walk them past the kolache
    “factory” in West all the way to the McClennan county courthouse, we can claim another act of treason against Teh Base.

  39. 39
    dollared says:

    @ricky: OK, I will. There was a law. Amounts over 400lbs had to be reported under that law. So that is a Homeland Security violation.

    And if you could read, you would know that they had notice that they had violated the requirement of having a disaster plan. And those disaster plans need to be filed with local first responders. So that they know what to do in case of a fire, for fuck’s sake.

    We have a societal interest in not having volunteer firefighters killed. There is a limited supply of them.

    This company murdered 14 people. Yeah. Jail time would be good. Not too many years, just enough to make sure that people file their fucking paperwork in the future.

  40. 40
    ricky says:

    Dollared, please.

    The reporter did not say the company violated a rule requiring them to report ammonium nitrate to DHS. The reporter said “The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate.” There is no legal limit.

    Second, the DHS reporting requirement is not for the purpose of insuring safe internal operation of fertilizer facilities. It is to develop a plan to keep chemical facilities safe from outside attack by terrorists.

    You think violation of a rule which carries no criminal penalty merits retroactive application of jail time? No wonder you think filing a paper plan with an agency with no inspection plan to validate the paper plans it has on file would have saved volunteer firefighters.

    The filing requirements used to inform local firefighters of dangerous substances are EPA Tier II filings which go to the Texas Department of Health. It was precisely that filing by West Fertilizer in 2012 that allowed reporters such as the one in this post to determine how much ammonium nitrate was on hand at the plant. That filing and that knowledge may or may not have saved lives in this disaster. It did not save enough.

    You say I should learn to read. I say you should learn to comprehend. Bad reporting is simply that, bad reporting. But bad reporting which is aimed at rousing anger at individuals for one disaster while ignoring that over a thousand potential similar disasters still exist is even worse.

  41. 41
    RaflW says:

    @ricky: I’ll refer you back to my comment @27, you can follow the linkee. They were fined for failing to develop a security plan to prevent materials from being stolen by would-be terrorists.

    And you can just eat shit any time you want.

  42. 42
    Deb T says:

    It is so shameful that this story is not being covered. Obama is going there today after the opening of Bush’s Library. I hope some press will follow him and cover this story. Too little too late. I hope Obama gives a speech as rousing as his Boston speech. I’ll bet dollars to donut it won’t be carried by many stations live. Probably not even NPR.

  43. 43
    ricky says:

    @RaflW:

    I didn’t need to follow your linkee. I read the quoted article the day it appears because it happened to be in the daily local to which I subscribe. Your “linkee” is no more
    proof of what I said would whet my appetite for a plate of horse caca than would be someone giving me a “linkee” to the original article reprinted in this post. Inaccurate reporting is inaccurate reporting.

    I will restate my point for those with comprehension challenges. This reporting has two glaring factual errors I have highlighted. The first states there was a legal limit on the ammount of ammonium nitrate a facility can have and West exceeded it. That is wrong. Second, it said the facility did not have legally required blast walls. I suggested plates of horse patoot for me if anyone could show the legal requirement for blast walls and the legal limit for amounts of stored ammonium nitrate.

    There is nothing in your “linkee” which contradicts either of my two points. There are many articles floating around about this incident which include factual errors written by reporters. Which leads to errors like yours, which states they were fined for failing to have a plan to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on the ammonium nitrate.
    I can link to articles and Congresspeople who say that the agency in charge of such regulations, the DHS, did not even know the plant existed.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.....21110.html

    How can a fine be levied against an entity an agency doesn’t know exists?

    You, like Dollared, seem to think commentary about bad journalism is a defense of how this facility operated.
    Perhaps I am wrong about that.

    My challenge to anyone who wants me to have a dish of dung for breakfast stands.

    As the article in my “linkee” suggests, there are thousands of facilities required to file “plans” with DHS to insure their facilities are not subject to terrorist plots, yet no DHS plan or sufficient personnel to insure those plans are worth the paper they are written on. But, since my “linkee” was written by a journalist, I can only say that is suggested by the article, not that such a shortcoming is a fact. An even assuming a small army of DHS inspectors followed up on these plans, we know too little about the cause oif the blaze and explosion to state that anything in that plan might have prevented what happened.

    Getcher pitchforks. Let’s have us a manhunt.

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