Post explosion, Texas still has a ‘fertilizer happens’ plan
As Gov. Rick Perry touts the Texas Miracle to lure businesses from New York, Sen. Barbara Boxer will hold a hearing this week on the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. But back home in Texas where 16 fertilizer plants are as large as the one in West, officials are putting the lazy in laissez-faire by adopting a voluntary "fertilizer happens" plan. Apparently Texans are on their own when it comes to industrial accidents, and the only government that bears any responsibility is the one in Washington that should be paying to rebuild everything.
Reactions from Texas Republicans ranged from disappointment to betrayal when the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Texas' request for $34.4 million for uninsured losses, most of which would go to rebuild a school. FEMA has already given West $16 million to reimburse them for first responders and clean up, but Texas’ application was rejected because the state failed to demonstrate that it didn't have the money.
This struck some local officials as a broken promise by the president who told Texans at the memorial service, "Your country will remain ever ready to help you recover and rebuild and reclaim your community."
"While President Obama has turned his back on Texas and gone against his word, we will continue to take care of our neighbors," said Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, Rick Perry's heir apparent, in a statement.
Just how Texas will take care of its neighbors was up for debate for two hours of public testimony last week before the Texas House Public Safety Committee. The chairman, Democrat Rep. Joe Pickett, wanted to focus on "lessons to be learned" from the explosion that killed 15 people and destroyed three schools, an apartment complex, and entire neighborhoods.
The main lesson Texas officials want to convey is that this is just not their responsibility. For example, it is not the state's duty to inspect the 129 companies that have at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate to see if they comply with the fire code. This is because the state forbids rural counties where these plants usually are located from having fire codes.
When a lawmaker asked State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy whether he knew whether any of those 16 plants as large as the one in West also had schools or homes nearby, Connealy responded with a succinct, "No, sir."
The best that Texas can do is to come up with a website where Texans can search by zip code to see whether they live near a business that handles ammonium nitrate. This, the state's first and so far only post-West reform to safety rules, would be as likely to prevent another explosion as a sex offender registry is to keep people from getting raped.
Of course, that wasn't all that the panel demanded. In addition to the website, the lawmakers asked the state fire marshal to "offer" to inspect fertilizer plants, to research whether federal law requires disclosure of hazardous chemicals on site, and to offer rural committees "best practices" on fire codes despite the fact that federal law forbids counties with fewer than 250,000 residents from adopting their own fire codes. All of this would be strictly voluntary.
But even that meek response was too much for one committee member, Republican Rep. Dan Flynn, who warned, "You can paperwork a company to death with just list after list, and signs, and of this kind of stuff. I think we need to keep it in perspective. I think it's a major problem and an accident."
Whatever his faults, inconsistency is not one of them. Rep. Flynn also offered an anti-regulatory response to the Newtown shooting, offering a bill to cut the number of hours training hours required to get a concealed handgun license from 10 to four because, he said, some people "have to take a whole Saturday to go do this."
So far, no Texas official has acknowledged publicly acknowledged the obvious, that our official response is to encourage economic growth and cross our fingers that this will never happen again. But we should not be surprised. Believing that business is always the answer and government is always the problem is an article of faith in the Texas Miracle.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who lives in Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JasStanford.