Jason Stanford, 7/9/2014 [Archive]

Lessons of Deadly Texas Explosion Go Unlearned

By Jason Stanford

Texas has such a business-friendly regulatory environment that it can best be described as "free range." Recently a Democratic lawmaker gently suggested making it illegal to store dangerous chemicals in flammable buildings, and Republicans jumped to defend the exploding fertilizer plant industry. Even after an explosion killed 15 people, Texas Republicans maintain that these things happen and that it's not the government's job to keep us from being blown up.

The only preventable tragedy these Republicans can see is the one that might drive up the cost to the exploding fertilizer plant industry. This is why so many of us drink in Texas. Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," but what if the change you wish to see is someone slapping some sense into these guys? Shall I be a cast iron skillet, because being a voter hasn't done me much good.

The regulations proposed do not seem unreasonable. After studying the West explosion for more than a year, Texas Rep. Joe Pickett thinks—stay with me here—that stuff that could explode should be stored in containers that won't burn. In West, ammonium nitrate was stored in a wooden container. The state fire marshal says there are 46 places in Texas that store exploding fertilizer in wooden buildings.

So what did Texas Republicans say to this fairly reasonable proposal?

"It seems like we're out there with a power grab," said Rep. Dan Flynn.

Pickett's proposal didn't stop there. He also thinks exploding fertilizer plants should have to comply with fire codes established by the National Fire Protection Association.

Even that is too much.

"I think the bill as written would put a lot of people out of business," said Rep. George Lavender. "I recognize the tragedies that we've had, and we certainly need to avoid that in the future, but there is a lot of stuff in here that is bad for the industry."

Facilities that store these dangerous chemicals have to tell the state what they've got, and people used to be able to get those reports to find out if the warehouse down the street might blow them to smithereens. That mild disclosure was too much regulation for industry, so in May Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Texas governor, ruled that the state could no longer release those public documents, which is where, if it's possible, Texas Republicans discovered a whole new level of absurdity.

How would Texans exercise their right to know whether the local plant could level their neighborhood school? Abbott told Texans to approach the businesses on their own. "You know where they are if you drive around," Abbott told reporters.

Abbott has not gotten such bad press since he called Ted Nugent his blood brother. After everyone got done laughing at the idea that we should just "drive around" to ferret out which buildings might be secret exploding fertilizer plants, Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News made an interesting observation. Five months after the West explosion, Abbott received $25,000 from the head of Koch Industries' fertilizer division. Since then, Abbott has taken $50,000 more from the Kochs. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

When he issued his ruling against public disclosure of dangerous chemicals, Abbott said that making it easy to find out what was stored in an exploding fertilizer plant could help terrorists blow stuff up. Well, you never know. Someone could blow up a fertilizer plant on purpose.

Later Abbott said he did not recall issuing that legal opinion, which begs the question: What did Abbott not know, and when did he not know it? Was it before or after taking $75,000 from the Koch brothers?

Putting stuff that explodes into containers that don't burn should not be a partisan issue. Letting firefighters inspect fire hazards should not be a partisan issue. Fire codes should be a no-brainer. But even after the explosion in West, Texas Republicans are still worried that common-sense safety measures unfairly penalizes industry in favor of people not getting blown up.

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©Copyright 2014 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at stanford@oppresearch.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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