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Meanwhile, Down In Texas

The Fertilizer Plant Explosion Blows Up A Lot More Than The Town of West

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

So. We know a little more about the Boston bombing on the 15th and the finale on the 19th. Seems as if we know next to nothing about the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that took place the same week. Everything we thought we knew about the ricin mailings to Obama and a Mississippi Senator turns out to have been incorrect, in that the man arrested has been, it seems, totally cleared and an alternate suspect still under suspicion. In any case, not much ricin involved, although there does not have to be to kill many people.

While the horrendous explosion in Texas killed five times the number in Boston, its other casualties were about the same. Not trying to find the correct sympathy level, but it is odd, arguably, that the greater tragedy absorbs far less media time than Boston's. Of course, there are national and international aspects to the Boston case that don't apply to the gaping hole in the Texas turf, but there is also the problem of who is at blame in Texas.

Apparently, few knew so much ammonium nitrate was there at the fertilizer plant, and there are conflicting opinions over whether it should have been there in that amount given the safety issues and, apparently, a dubiously trained crew to handle emergency fires. This was well enough known that a Dallas fire chief in the area who knew the dangers and plant's competence, rushed over to help. He was among the initial dead.

The Oklahoma City bombings by McVeigh near twenty years ago - the one with the fireman carrying out a dead toddler named Baylee in a famous photo - used about 4500 pounds of this stuff and it brought down a huge building. That's 2.5 tons. This was a hundred times that.

A rail car full of ammonium nitrate, initially thought to be responsible, was not. But the 270 tons of the stuff kept at the plant in a huge silo and was the fuel for the huge explosion, is certainly under consideration, although what caused the initial fire is the issue, not the subsequent blast. Ammonium nitrate is a dry fertilizer applied to crops along with other ingredients. It's light in weight, and so 270 tons is a bloody lot.

The Koch brothers of Kansas have a great deal of money involved in fertilizer, and when Christine Todd Whitman, Bush II's EPA director became concerned over safety and procedures at fertilizer plants, she got Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security Director, to draw attention of the vulnerability of these plants to terrorists, an entirely reasonable fear in those early days of 2001. This would involve inspections and fines if needed and would serve two goals: making the nation safer economically - because agriculture is our biggest export and business - and keeping the environment in general safer. In short: regulate fertilizer plants under the Clean Air act.

The White House passed gas at the thought and Whitman's authority was diluted and placed elsewhere, and nothing in the way of increased security occurred. Whitman resigned in 2003.

When Obama took over, Whitman appealed to the new EPA to look into all this, see the dangers, and make things safer. Not only did no restrictive legislation take place, Republicans lined up to try and pass a law prohibiting the Clean Air act from being used against fertilizer plants at all. GOP Congressman Mike Pompeo, who is elected from the Koch brothers district in Kansas, introduced the General Duty Clarification Act of 2013, as in 2012, backed by the usual suspects including the US Chamber of Commerce.

As Mother Jones magazine alertly recognizes and reports, the bill is an attempt to separate safety from security, and the bill wants to leave all inspections under the Department of Homeland Security. Always. This, so that no unnecessary expense accrue to the Koch brothers and their interests in fertilizer. Insert the obvious zinger here.

We need to, somehow, redo how our federal bills are passed and implemented. The way it runs, is we have an enabling bill that makes something legal, and then we have the finance bill to pay for it. We can pass shockingly strict regulations but, as Deep Water Horizon and now West Texas prove, if we don't fund the inspections by the qualified, why bother?

I'm embarrassed to say even Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom on HBO suggested that companies themselves ought to pay for these inspections, like drivers pay for their car's inspections. It's not the nation's duty to prove them unsafe, it's our duty to prove ourselves qualified and our vehicles safe. It's a duty to our fellow citizens. If we cannot, we're not allowed to drive the vehicle, and if we drive it anyway, we can go to jail.

Don't the Koch Brothers think corporations are people, too?