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A regulatory morass in fertilizer storage

The giant explosion that rocked a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, last Wednesday ought to mandate a hard look by the federal government at rules governing the booming chemicals business. The country’s sudden abundance of cheap natural gas, a primary input in the manufacture of many things, including artificial fertilizer, has begun to attract chemical companies back to the United States, which certainly could use the jobs. But, as with any big industrial operation, chemicals manufacturing and storage brings a host of risks, toxic and explosive.

The right response is simple: Make companies comprehensively assess the risks they and those around their facilities face. Then they can take reasonable steps to guard against those risks and plan what to do when everything goes wrong. Wednesday night’s explosion, in other words, should not have been a total surprise, but a worst-case scenario the company had anticipated and prepared for.

As it stands, the federal regulatory system is far from simple, and it certainly could be more effective.

Journalists have already picked apart a 2011 risk assessment from West Fertilizers that the Center for Effective Government printed on its website. In it, the company told the EPA that it had 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site, but that there was no danger of explosion. Following Wednesday’s disaster, that claim seems to be tragically negligent.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has its own domain of jurisdiction over these companies, but it hadn’t inspected the West Fertilizer plant since 1985, which might have something to do with a shortage of inspectors.

The industry says that what happened in West is extremely rare. But, at the least, the accident has exposed the federal regulatory morass in which the industry operates. Every regulator with any kind of responsibility for West Fertilizers now seems to be investigating what happened last Wednesday night, along with an independent federal inquiry. They shouldn’t shy from telling Congress and President Obama how to make the system more rational.

Legacy Comments28

Just one other comment about this explosion.... it has really pointed up the hypocrisy of the right - they're all about de-regulation and freedom when it comes to making money. But when that de-regulation leads to a disaster, they're all about socializing risk. Didn't take Gov. Perry long to ask the federal government for disaster funds. I say, if you're going to de-regulate private enterprise, then they should not, not, not EVER be bailed out by the feds when something goes wrong. But, I digress. As others have rightfully pointed out - this was not a de-regulation problem - it was an enforcement problem.

One question...any proof or factual data that 'de-regulation leads to a disaster" specifically this one?

You only have to Google OSHA's history over the last 3 decades--especially during Republican administrations with their documented hostility to regulation, systematic gutting of the agency, and an emphasis on "voluntary compliance", to find the answer to your question regarding preventable disasters like this one. The fault lies with lack of oversight from both state and federal regulatory agencies, and the mistaken belief that "burdensome" regulations cost jobs. I think the research on the economic effects of regulation shows no overall job losses, and often a net gain, as effective regulation often spurs innovation.

Overegulation. Let me give you an example. Protecting the delta smelt and causing farmers to lose their livlihood and starving America's breadbasket. Overregulation. Politicians doing everything in their power to stop development of new oil sources internally in this country. Here is an example of OSHA overregulation from CATO Institute: http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-200.html

Reply to Itsa below: I believe the topic at hand is under-regulation, the lack of oversight and attention paid by state and regulatory agencies--often hamstrung by lack of funding and gutted rules over the last 3 decades of libertarian mis-rule. Nice try at changing the subject though, and avoiding any sustained discussion of the facts on the topic, with the usual hysterics about, in this case, "farmers losing their livelihoods" and 'starving America's breadbasket"!? And given that the U.S. is supposed to be a net energy exporter over the next 2 decades, your claim about "stopping development of new oil sources" rings hollow, or at least a little out of date.

I'll ask it again....Any proof or factual data that 'de-regulation lead to this disaster????????????????????

There is rarely 100% certainty about anything, but the fact the plant had not been inspected by OSHA since 1985 tells you that de-regulation and a concomitant systematic gutting of the agency had nothing to do with this tragedy? As the article plainly states: "The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has its own domain of jurisdiction over these companies, but it hadn’t inspected the West Fertilizer plant since 1985, which might have something to do with a shortage of inspectors."

No, I don't. Nor do I need to provide any proof. I very pointedly said in my original post that this was NOT caused by deregulation.

And if it was an enforcement problem, that falls on the Obama federal government agency. He had five years to prevent something like this but instead he focuses on everything "social".

When are you folks going to discuss how much money was dedicated to which depts and then tell us why that dept screwed up anyways? Homeland security got more money, yet they could not identify a bomber that they had interviewed and turned down for citizenship last year. Had to ask the public who the guy was. The Libya hearings stated that they had enough money, and the decision to not put more security at the embassy had nothing to do with money. I watched both hearings. Folks want immigration passed for 23 milion illegal immigrants, yet they cannot keep tract of one guy when warned by Russia he is a problem. It is obvious that our govt runs poorly, has no clue how to manage anything, and wants bigger govt and more money with the idea that will make them more efficient. The left buys it.

Last time I checked, Homeland Security (which says it has enough money) was not in charge of enforcing OSHA regulations. Can we stick to the point?

I never said that Homeland Security was in charge of enforcing OSHA. The point was about govt depts running poorly. This explosion was a result of poor enforcement by the Feds. This plant had been cited before for problems. Why was the EPA not on top of this? Another note, is that the left rants about the right not wanting any regulations. That is the dumbest statement I have ever heard. We need regulations, and they need to be enforced. Adding more when the ones already on the books are not being enforced is stupid.

Nobody has said, in response to West, Texas, that more regulation is needed. On the contrary, every responsible voice has said that the current regs need to be enforced. The question - the existential question - in this political climate driven by Republicans and their Democratic enablers is whether it is possible, let alone feasible, to appropriate sufficient funds for EPA, OSHA, et al. do do their statutory duties.

RabbitNH, you are spot on in your analysis. The folks who are not progressive are not anti-regulation, they are anti-over regulation.

I don't think that RabbitNH said that after reading the comments. Of course a prime example of Homeland Security being a government agency which is inefficient and wasteful is the TSA (Thousands Standing Around). For the most point, government agencies and state agencies are ineffective and inefficient at best we see this at the NH state level at agencies like DOT and the Safe Routes to School program and the fun on the web gang over to DES. But in conclusion, deregulation was NOT the issue in the Texas fertilizer tragedy.

Gracchus = 3, Sail, Rabbit and G-dub = 0. Game, set and match, GRACCHUS!!!! By the power invested in me as a member of the Rat Patrol, I lay my sword on each of your shoulders, then on your noggin, and dub thee an honorary Rat Patrol member!

Thanks, Dan! Do I get to wear one of those swell costumes and learn the secret handshake?

must be some of that liberal teacher union NEW MATH that they teach at school where the right answer is not important but how you get there is all that they thinks counts

This has nothing to do with the idea that we do not have enough regulations in any federal dept. Just the opposite in fact. This facility had not been inspected in 5 years. The EPA had cited it for issues also. We have plenty of regulations, laws etc. They just are not being enforced. I suggest OSHA start focusing on workplace safety instead of workplace politics.

I suggest politicians stop listening to the sources of their campaign dollars and start providing the funding so that OSHA and other agencies can do their jobs. It's a very clever "heads I win, tails you lose" formula: claim we have sufficient regulations if only the agencies would enforce them and then deny the agencies the resources necessary to the task.

the reactionary left always want to pass Big Govt regulations as a solution to their perceived problems.....reactionary legislation never is good legislation and never survives the perils of time

The regulations exist; they are in place. The reactionary conservatives in congress refuse to provide adequate funds to agencies like OSHA, EPA and several others charged with protecting us from reckless practices. They are no more "big government" than the cop on the beat. They just have a bigger beat. If you, Mr. sail, want to defend lack of enforcement - or better still, deregulation - in the wake of West, Texas, by all means bring it on. I can hardly wait to see the pretzel logic you'll have to resort to.

LOL..where do you come up with this? Who has had budget control (or lack of it) since 2009?

"LOL." This is what the fine arts of logic and argument (in the classical tradition) have become in the hands (keyboards!?!) of modern conservatives/libertarians.

The same folks who always have - the Congress.

Yes by all means let's return to the days when the Merrimack was filled with chemical and human waste, the days of Love Canal, record pollution of the Hudson River, Boston harbor and don't forget the 20 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List in New Hampshire. Yes, American business withourt regulations would have us living free but in a toxic wasteland. All one has to do is look at the history of American business, profits, profits, profits, while Americans choke. If wanting a healthy environment makes one a reactionary - when do I sign up.

How was the Merrimack being filled with human waste American business fault?

This event was a sad and tragic inevitability: a direct result of the libertarian-inspired anti-regulation sentiment that has taken over the Republican party and a significant minority of the Democrats - the Blue Dogs and the "New Democrats." Case after case including the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster and the Salmonella in the peanut butter a few years ago demonstrate one thing, that absent or inadequate regulations and inspections kill people. I wonder what the response in West, Texas, would be if it were in Ron Paul's district. I wonder whether anybody would claim, as somebody more clever than I wrote last week, that John Galt murdered those 14 people.

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