Bloomberg News

U.S. Speeds to Stop Terror as Texas Blast Shows Safety Ignored

May 01, 2013

U.S. Speeds to Stop Terror as Texas Blast Shows Safety Ignored

A view of the devastation resulting from the April 17 fertilizer plant blast in West, Texas, is seen from a distance through a field of corn on April 20 2013. Photographer: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Political labels fell aside after the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three as Americans “united in concern for our fellow citizens,” said President Barack Obama, a Democrat. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, urged the country to “come together with grace and strength.”

Yet while terrorism galvanizes top federal officials to move to prevent future attacks, industrial safety gets less attention -- even after 14 died in a Texas fertilizer-plant explosion April 17, two days after the Boston bombing. Lawmakers in Congress have just started to investigate the Texas deaths while state officials defend their regulation of chemical facilities.

“It’s going to take more plants blowing up before policy makers start realizing there’s a serious issue,” said Nasima Hossain, the federal public health advocate in Washington for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.

Workplace fires and explosions killed 1,842 from 2001 to 2011, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. The Boston bombings would be the highest-profile terrorist act in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, when 2,977 lost their lives, according to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Most Americans say there’s little the federal government can do to prevent attacks like the one at the Boston Marathon: 75 percent of U.S. adults see occasional acts of terrorism as a part of life, up 11 percentage points from a year ago, according to a poll by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The telephone survey of 1,002 adults in the continental U.S., taken April 18-21, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Tougher Rules

Still, federal lawmakers of both political stripes used the bombing to push their side of the debate over immigration laws, gun control and government efficiency.

Safety advocates say the ways to stop deaths like those that occurred in West, Texas, are tougher regulations and zoning for chemical plants. The fire and ensuing blast at Adair Grain Inc.’s fertilizer plant devastated the town of 2,800, wrecking two schools, a nursing home and an apartment building all built within blocks of the plant.

Texas officials who testified yesterday at the state’s first legislative hearing on the explosion said current regulations are adequate to prevent future disasters.

“The system worked,” said Nim Kidd, chief of emergency management at the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Responses to the two tragedies show how a surprise attack and ensuing chase in one of the most populated cities in the U.S. can hold the public attention for weeks, while two days later a deadlier explosion in small-town America -- the worst industrial disaster in three years -- becomes an afterthought on the evening news.

Bombing Site

“We can’t prevent every tragedy,” said Dan Fee, an airline pilot from Kansas visiting the Boston bombing site last week. He shrugged off a question about the need for more regulations after the Texas explosion. “We have this endless cycle of trying to assign blame and pass laws. I’m tired of the knee-jerk reactions.”

Fee was among countless Americans who have turned the bombing sites and a nearby memorial at Boston’s Copley Square into a hive of activity. Last week, more than 10 days after the attack, traffic halted while a group of runners completed their marathon, embracing after passing the finish line near a half- dozen satellite television trucks.

More than 20 people waited in line to buy merchandise from Marathon Sports, a fitness store on Boylston Street that had its storefront blown apart by the bombs. Dozens more took photos of buildings boarded up with plywood.

In West, reporters who packed the only hotel in town and crowded into an auction barn for news conferences have mostly left. Meanwhile, the community remains under a boil-water order, a result of pipes broken in the explosion.

Disrupted Town

“It’s slowed down tremendously,” Barbara Schissler, 64, who runs the Czech Stop grocery and Little Czech Bakery in West, said of national media attention. “But the town isn’t back to normal and it won’t be for quite a while.”

The marathon bombings received at least two-and-a-half hours of coverage on ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer,” according to Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive. The program devoted about 17 minutes to the West explosion.

CNN continues to broadcast live from near the Boston Marathon site. The media frenzy continued yesterday as authorities said they planned to charge three additional suspects. There seemed to be no trouble finding an audience.

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said they were following the bombing story “very closely,” according to the Pew poll. Half as many said that about the fertilizer-plant explosion.

Uninspected Plant

In a YouGov Plc (YOU) poll of 1,000 adults taken April 23-24 only 18 percent of Americans agreed that stricter workplace safety regulations would “prevent another accident like the one in Texas.” The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration hadn’t inspected the West plant since 1985, while the risk plan filed with regulators listed no flammable chemicals.

West Fertilizer handled anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen fertilizer that farmers inject into the soil for plant growth. It also stored as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a solid fertilizer that was used in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people, in 1995.

There are no federal rules mandating that such plants be located away from residential areas, and current safety plans aren’t always shared widely with residents nearby, said Paul Orum, an independent consultant who wrote a report on chemical security for the Center for American Progress. The Washington- based group was founded by John Podesta, a former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

Boxer Investigates

After the blast, U.S. Representatives George Miller, a California Democrat, and Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, wrote the Government Accountability Office on April 25 asking whether federal regulators can better prevent explosions at fertilizer facilities. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the panel will investigate the blast.

“I’m confident that given the death toll here and the number of people that have been injured, close to 200, that all of these questions will be throughly investigated,” U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican said in an April 24 conference call with reporters. “And they should be.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee at mbender10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net


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