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After plant explosion, Texas remains wary of regulation

By Ian Urbina, Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz

New York Times

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WEST, Texas » Five days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled a wide swath of this town, Gov. Rick Perry tried to woo Illinois business officials by trumpeting his state's low taxes and limited regulations. Asked about the disaster, Perry responded that more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the nation's worst industrial accidents in decades.

"Through their elected officials," he said, Texans "clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight."

This antipathy toward regulations is shared by many residents here. Politicians and economists credit the stance with helping attract jobs and investment to Texas, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, and with winning the state a year-after-year ranking as the nation's most business-friendly.

Even in West, last month's devastating blast did little to shake local skepticism of government regulations. Tommy Muska, the mayor, echoed Perry in the view that tougher zoning or fire safety rules would not have saved his town. "Monday-morning quarterbacking," he said.

Raymond J. Snokhous, a retired lawyer in West who lost two cousins — brothers who were volunteer firefighters — in the explosion, said, "There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations."

Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers' compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.

But Texas has also had the nation's highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas' more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation's second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

As federal investigators sift through the rubble at the West Fertilizer Co. plant, seeking clues about the April 17 blast that killed at least 14 people and injured roughly 200 others, some here argue that Texas' culture itself contributed to the calamity.

"The Wild West approach to protecting public health and safety is what you get when you give companies too much economic freedom and not enough responsibility and accountability," said Thomas O. McGarity, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and an expert on regulation.

Since the accident, some state lawmakers began calling for increased workplace safety inspections to be paid for by businesses. Fire officials are pressing for stricter zoning rules to keep residences farther away from dangerous industrial sites. But those efforts face strong resistance.

Chuck DeVore, the vice president of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative study group, said that the wrong response to the explosion would be for the state to hire more "battalions of government regulators who are deployed into industry and presume to know more about running the factory than the people who own the factory and work there every day."

This anti-regulatory zeal is an outgrowth of a broader Texas ideology: that government should get out of people's lives, a deeply held belief throughout the state that touches many aspects of life here, including its gun culture, its Republican-dominated Legislature and its cowboy past and present.

Texas is one of only four states with legislatures that meet as infrequently as possible, once every two years, as required by the 137-year-old state constitution. From the freewheeling days of independent oilmen known as wildcatters to the 2012 presidential race, in which President Barack Obama lost Texas by nearly 1.3 million votes, the state's pro-business, limited-government mantra has been a vital part of its identity.

That is particularly true in the countryside. "In rural Texas," said Stephen T. Hendrick, the engineer for McLennan County, where the explosion occurred, "no one votes for regulations."

DEBATING A FIRE CODE

Texas is dotted by more than 700 fertilizer depots like the one near West. Many store ammonium nitrate, the fertilizer that exploded near West, which is spread on the soil to supply the nitrogen that crops need. Consisting of white pebbles that resemble coarse table salt, the chemical can explode when heated. In the wrong hands, it can be deadly. About 2 tons was used in the bomb that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Fertilizer accidents are rare across the nation. Texas was, however, the site of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history in April 1947, when nearly 600 people were killed in Texas City in an explosion on a ship carrying ammonium nitrate.

It is impossible to know whether tougher regulations would have prevented the disaster near West, especially since investigators remain unsure what sparked the fire that caused the fertilizer to explode. McLennan is among the counties without a fire code.

But federal officials and fire safety experts contend that fire codes and other requirements would probably have made a difference. A fire code would have required frequent inspections by fire marshals who might have prohibited the plant's owner from storing the fertilizer just hundreds of feet from a school, a hospital, a railroad and other public buildings, they say. A fire code also would probably have mandated sprinklers and forbidden the storage of ammonium nitrate near combustible materials. (Investigators say the fertilizer was stored in a largely wooden building near piles of seed, one possible factor in the fire.)

"It's tough to overstate the importance fire codes would have made," said Scott Harris, a former emergency management coordinator in Texas for the Environmental Protection Agency who is now with UL Workplace Health and Safety, a safety science company. "Texas just hasn't wrapped its brain around this fact yet."

In chemical fires, firefighters often bear a heavy toll. Ten of the at least 14 people who died in West were firefighters, and two more were residents helping fight the flames. This week, officials from the state firefighters' association said the 50-foot-tall memorial to volunteers killed in the line of duty, on the Capitol grounds in Austin, had no room left for new names, not even those from West.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said enough was enough. "We can dance around it all we want to," said Ellis, who has called for more frequent inspections of plants like the one near West. "But the laissez-faire attitude about government oversight and government regulation has to have some impact on safety measures."

GAPS IN REGULATIONS

The night of the accident, Muska, 55, was not just serving as West's mayor; he was also among the firefighters on the scene. He also became one of his town's victims: The home where he lived with his wife and 14-year-old daughter was ruined. Five of his friends, fellow members of the West Volunteer Fire Department, were killed.

The blast, 20 minutes after a fire broke out at the fertilizer depot, was so powerful that it registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake, decimating the 11-building, 10-acre plant on the edge of town. It left a crater 93 feet wide and sent a gray mushroom cloud into the sky that reminded many residents of the images they had seen of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Many families in West — population 2,800 — share the bonds of Czech heritage, including Muska. The Best Western is known as the Czech Inn. Regular travelers on the interstate make a habit of stopping in West for gas and a box of kolaches at a bakery, the Czech Stop.

Like other communities in central Texas, West is home to cattle ranchers and farmers, welders and deer hunters. Its hills and wide open spaces are so green that it is easy to forget that other parts of the state remain in a drought, and the roads on the outskirts of town are so tranquil that it is hard to remember that Dallas is just an hour north.

The fertilizer warehouse opened in 1962 to supply local corn and cotton farmers, changing ownership and names several times over the decades. It was built far from West's downtown, but the town expanded in recent years toward the fertilizer depot. Before long a middle school, a nursing home and an apartment complex were just blocks away.

Residents, including Muska, never viewed the plant as a potential tinderbox capable of obliterating half their town. To many, it was a respected employer and, as some local and state leaders put it, a "good corporate citizen." With fewer than 10 employees, the depot was owned by Donald R. Adair, 83, a lifelong resident and active member of the West Church of Christ.

"It was a friendly convenience," said Ronnie Gerik, a farmer who bought fertilizer, fuel and tools once a week from the depot. "It meant you didn't have to drive 20 minutes to Hillsboro or Waco to get what you needed."

West Fertilizer fell under the purview of at least seven state or federal regulatory agencies, each with its own objectives. None had primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored there or that of the workers or residents nearby.

Zak Covar, the executive director of the state environmental regulatory agency, has said his office was not responsible for tracking ammonium nitrate. He pointed to the Office of the Texas State Chemist. Tim Herrman, the state chemist, said his agency monitored whether fertilizers are labeled correctly and not their safety. "It's fair to say we are not fire-safety experts," he said.

In the capital, two hours south of West, a handful of lawmakers say the time may be right to push, incrementally, for change.

Walter T. Price IV, a Republican state representative from Amarillo, sponsored a bill to give smaller rural counties the option to impose fire codes. Though it is a straightforward bill, Price said, he has already heard complaints from business owners that such requirements could be financially burdensome.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican whose district includes West, declined to say whether he would back the bill.

Perry, who toured the blast site and met with town leaders and emergency responders, is similarly noncommittal. Asked whether the governor would support Price's proposal, a spokeswoman, Lucy Nashed, said that the governor would review any bill that made it to his desk, but that the investigation into the blast was continuing.

This week, Perry's press office announced that Texas had been ranked for the ninth year in a row as the country's most pro-business state, according to a survey by Chief Executive magazine. Texas accounted for nearly a third of all private sector jobs created over the past decade, according to federal labor data. And under Perry it gives businesses more tax breaks and incentives than any other state, roughly $19 billion a year.

Keith R. Phillips, senior economist of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, agreed that Texas' formula helped generate jobs and draw businesses, though factors like the state's oil economy and its low cost of living play a role, too. "Growth is going to occur where businesses can maximize profits and where workers and retirees want to live," he said.

Paul Burka, senior executive editor at Texas Monthly, said he did not imagine that the West disaster would lead to much in the way of change. Tragedies rarely do, he said. "We're not going to spend our money telling businesses what we should do with their premises," said Burka, who grew up near Texas City.

Indeed, days after the accident near West, state lawmakers killed a proposal to provide $60 million in training and resources for volunteer firefighters. And a lobbyist for state firefighters, who backed Price's effort, said the bill had little chance of passing because of resistance from the real estate industry.

"Businesses can come down here and do pretty much what they want to," Burka said. "That is the Texas way."






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