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Vol. 77/No. 18      May 13, 2013

Boss, gov’t disregard for safety
behind plant explosion in Texas
WEST, Texas — Twisted metal and scorched earth mark where the West Fertilizer factory used to be in the northeast corner of this working-class town of 3,000 people. Nearby buildings, including an apartment complex, are completely destroyed. Visible structural damage to walls and foundations can be seen for a mile, and windows were blown out for blocks beyond that.

More information continues to come to light that points to the culpability of company owners and government agencies for the April 17 factory explosion that killed 15, injured at least 200 and destroyed a large part of the town here. The circumstances surrounding the explosion mirror those of other fatal disasters in the state’s petrochemical industry in recent decades that have taken place alongside the bosses’ drive for “productivity” and profits.

Officials announced that for the first time since the disaster residents in areas close to the blast could see their homes April 27 under police supervision.

“I was at home about five miles from the plant when it exploded,” Tara McGoldrick, a 17-year-old student at West High School who works at a local bakery, told the Militant April 29. “I have many friends who lost their homes. It’s changed everything. Cops are now everywhere. TV reporters won’t get their cameras out of our face. We now have to travel to Connally for classes because our high school was badly damaged and what’s still usable has been taken over by state police. We’ve been told we can’t use tap water for anything.”

“We’ve been without water for 10 days,” said waitress Hailie Huggins, who lives with her grandmother here. While the blast also blew out the windows of their home, they had nowhere else to go, she explained. “Day by day, little by little we’re trying to get back to normal.”

The Dallas Morning News reported April 23 that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality knew 2,400 tons of explosive chemicals were being processed and stored at the fertilizer plant and raised no concerns. In 2007 the agency issued the plant a permit to process volatile chemicals to produce fertilizer after determining there was no dust hazard. The potential danger of explosion was not considered in the decision. Several other state agencies, including the Department of State Health Services and the Office of the Texas State Chemist, also knew but did not raise any concerns about the risks involved.

When a fire started April 17, it spread to a structure next to the shed housing a massive container of explosive ammonium nitrate.

Between 1987 and 1991, 12 explosions in the state’s oil industry killed 79 people and injured 933. These disasters took place side by side with a union-busting campaign that included a “productivity” drive alongside mass layoffs. Between 1982 and 1991 more than 40,000 jobs were cut in the refining industry, leaving about 115,000 refinery workers. An additional 30,000 hourly jobs were eliminated in the chemical industry.

From 2001 to 2010, there were 69 offshore oil rig deaths, 1,349 injuries, and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf of Mexico alone, according to the federal Minerals Management Service. More than 500 fires occurred since 2006, including the April 2010 blast on the BP Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 and poisoned large sections of the Gulf.

Meanwhile, some 850 United Steelworkers union members at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown, Texas, oil refinery — the second-largest in the U.S. — are threatening to strike in mid-June over safety concerns. The union has pressed for greater safety measures at the refinery since June 2011, after a worker suffered burns on 25 percent of his body, due to a faulty steam vent valve.

The union and Exxon management will meet again May 3, following the company’s refusal in April to accept the union’s safety proposals, already in place at several other Exxon refineries. The union reports that management has plans for a lockout if no agreement is reached, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The West Fertilizer plant was nonunion.
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