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Saturday, April 20, 2013

That other explosion: The preventable deaths in Texas

by Jamie Lutton

A factory just blew up, in West, Texas.

This was a totally preventable accident, and it was exacerbated by extraordinarily poor and reckless city design in this small town.

We have known how to  prevent accidents like this  since at least 1947.. This disaster should never have happened, and if it did happen, the loss of life was absolutely preventable. Those who died, those who lost their homes in the blast, those  hundreds who were injured, this was absolutely unnecessary.

This factory had ammonium nitrate stored on the premises  The city fathers, as the town grew, either allowed homes, schools, nursing homes and apartments to be built around this factory, or allowed the factory to be located very, very close to these homes. .... I don't know which

This was all a recipe for disaster. And it is on record that this factory failed some safety inspections, and had bargained down the fines they had received for those violations. They had forgotten the adage 'penny wise; pound foolish.' All the facts are not in yet, but it appears to save a few bucks, they cut corners.

And even if their safety record turns out to be squeaky clean, who in their right mind puts a middle school, a high school, apartment buildings and a nursing home within the blast radius of a factory that handles dangerous chemicals like ammonium nitrate?  All these buildings were located mere yards from the factory.

The city developers  in West should be held responsible for allowing homes and schools to be built so close to this factory.  There was no excuse for this.

I blame the zoning committee at this city for this madness; if the widows of the firefighters have any sense, they  will sue the pants off not only the factory owners, but the city itself for allowing this. Does the almighty dollar rule over common sense?

Eleven first responders, including fire fighters, and three others died in the blast...and  these were volunteer fire fighters, local men who put their lives on the line; evacuated the homes, apartments, and nursing homes, and who tried to fight the fire, are responsible for their not being a much greater loss of life.

They are amazing heroes.

But - have they died in vain?

 When are we going to enforce safer practices in American factories? Over and over, we have accidents like this, and nothing changes.  

Perhaps insurance they carry will allow the factory owners to rebuild, but what about the loss of life? All those brave firefighters died saving lives in that town, lives that were put at risk because several entities had not practiced any common sense.

We all know better than this.

 In 1947, an accident in Texas City, Texas  killed 600 people and injured thousands when a French ship carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded. The explosion could be heard over a 100 miles away..That horrific fire and explosions were supposed to 'have changed everything' the way the Triangle garment factory fire of 1911 led, finally, to vastly improved safety standards in American factories.

We should stop. Stop..... and think about enforcing the laws we have, and passing tougher laws about safety practices in factories like this one.

My dad worked handling radioactive nuclear waste products at Hanford; he was a radioactive waste expert, an inorganic chemist. I learned from him, from stories he told me, that safety must come first. Though Daddy used to joke about OSHA, Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, harassing him and made fusses over the height of railings and such, but he was damn glad they were there, keeping an eye on safety. .

OSHA has been gutted in recent decades, defanged, so that they cannot force factory owners to keep their workplaces safe from accidents like this.

This same week, three people died and dozens were maimed in a bomb blast in Boston, Mass. This horrified us as it was carried out willfully by young, deluded terrorists. We  cannot do anything quickly about terrorism, young men going mad and building bombs that maim children and other civilians - or what we can do, will mean re-organizing the governments of the world. Some of us are working on that, all sorts of organizations. .

But death and destruction like the ones in West can be easily prevented.

In any town in this nation, we should examine how safe our schools and housing are, and how close they are to hazards like this one. We fret about sexual predators living near our schools; how about fretting about ticking time bombs like this factory? We must insist that that more inspections are done, fines are increased, and that OSHA has the power to shut down factories that are run in a dangerous way.

And NO city planners should get away with placing schools, homes, apartment buildings and nursing homes so close to a factory that they could easily blow up . The death toll could have been much, much higher; they got lucky, and they had well trained, selfless fire fighters working that terrible blaze.  We got very lucky in West. As ordinary citizens, we can petition our government to restore the powers of OSHA, and demand that factory towns are a lot safer. This is a task any single citizen can take on, by writing letters, - real letters, not emails- to your representatives, and  demand that there be safer practices in place.

This is where ''government red tape''' saves lives..both in better city planning, and demanding safer workplaces for all. 

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