Before 270 tons of ammonium nitratet exploded at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant last Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security “did not even know the plant existed,” ranking Republican on the DHS House committee Bernie Thompson said Monday.
According to Reuters, 270 tons of ammonium nitrate is 1,350 times more than what should trigger safety oversight from the DHS. (For comparison, the West fertilizer plant had 135 times more ammonium nitrate on its premises than Timothy McVeigh used when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.) But the last full safety inspection of West plant was 28 years ago.
Why had regulation on this plant become so lax in the last three decades? msnbc’s Alex Wagner blamed President George W. Bush on The Last Word Thursday:
“We celebrated the man’s presidency today at the opening of his presidential library,” Wagner said, “but if you look at what happened to OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], which is the organization which oversees workplace hazards and really has an eye out for the American worker, I believe 86% fewer regulations were issued under Bush. The man he appointed to head OSHA literally fell asleep on the job multiple times…the notion of regulation became a very bad thing under Bush.”
The “bad notion of regulation” was echoed by Texas Governor Rick Perry Monday in Chicago, on a trip meant to lure businesses to the Lone Star state.
“All business have to look at their bottom line,” Perry told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Taxes, regulation, legal system, workforce–that’s what government does. Government can either be a hurdle or it can smooth out the road. We think in Texas we smoothed that road out as good as anybody.”
On The Last Word Thursday, msnbc’s Richard Wolffe pushed back against the ”smoothing out” of the regulatory road when it leads to unsafe work environments.
“You’ve got to ask yourself as governor, elected by the people in Texas, are you representing business interests–because that’s one measure of his success, right? [Perry] brags about how many business he’s pulled out of other states and therefore ‘created’ those jobs…that’s one measure of him. Another measure is: are your voters, your citizens, safe? When they go to work, do they come home at the end of the day?”
Investigators are still trying to determine what ignited the massive build-up of ammonium nitrate–theories include a small seed fire that could have burst into flame, or the sparking of another flammable gas called anhydrous ammonia–but nothing is confirmed. What’s certain is that the amount of ammonium nitrate present in the plant was an accident waiting to happen.
“The whole thing may have fallen through a number of regulatory cracks,” a federal official whose agency helped regulate the plant told The New York Times Wednesday.
Now those cracks have caused the deaths of at least a 14 people, with a final death toll still to come.