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Little Oversight at Texas Fertilizer Plant That Exploded Killing 14

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

The fertilizer plant in West, Texas that exploded on Wednesday night killing 14 people was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985, and had failed to disclose to the Department of Homeland Security that it was storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would bring oversight from that agency.

Screengrab via The Bay Area's News Station Mike Elk, labor reporter for In These Times, explained how OSHA is "extraordinarily hamstrung as it tries to enforce current workplace safety laws."

There are only 2,218 inspectors at both the federal and state level who inspect workplace safety to cover 7.5 million workplaces employing more than 130 million workers. That's one inspector for every 57,984 workers. At this rate,  OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years and state OSHA inspectors could inspect one every 67 years.

It’s the same old story: a dangerous industrial facility with limited regulatory oversight finally creates death and destruction.—Phil MatteraAs for DHS, Reuters reports:

Failure to report significant volumes of hazardous chemicals at a site can lead the DHS to fine or shut down fertilizer operations, a person familiar with the agency's monitoring regime said. Though the DHS has the authority to carry out spot inspections at facilities, it has a small budget for that and only a "small number" of field auditors, the person said.

Firms are responsible for self reporting the volumes of ammonium nitrate and other volatile chemicals they hold to the DHS, which then helps measure plant risks and devise security and safety plans based on them.

The Nation's Lee Fang adds that

There are specialized inspectors for chemical plants that, in theory, should have covered where OSHA or environmental regulators left off. The US Chemical Safety Board, which came into operation in 1998, is the commission tasked with investigating safety violations. Like similar boards, the Chemical Safety Board has virtually no resources: only a $10 million budget to cover every violation in the country. The Center for Public Integrity has a new, incredibly damning report, showing that the agency has failed to investigate several recent disasters, including the death of a worker at refinery in Memphis last December.

Budget cuts, and the sequestration, loom large as every federal workforce is scaled back. Rather than provoking reform, at least in the short term, tragedies like this may get worse as there are fewer and fewer regulators to ensure safety at these types of facilities.

The deadly outcome in West, unfortunatey, comes as no surprise, as Phil Mattera writes in Dirt Diggers Digest:

It’s the same old story: a dangerous industrial facility with limited regulatory oversight finally creates death and destruction.

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Mike Elk appeared on Democracy Now! on Thursday to talk about the explosion at the Texas plant and workplace safety. Watch the segment below:

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