MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., April 26, 2013 — Last week, among several newsworthy events, notably the terrorist attack in Boston, we learned of the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The explosion killed 14 and destroyed a significant portion of the town. Most of the victims were first responders. While the investigation is still being conducted, there appears to be some facts that make many scratch their heads and wonder whether this is the 21st century.
Twenty years ago the United Agency for International Development (USAID) was asked by the city of Quito, Ecuador to conduct a risk assessment on a liquefied natural gas storage facility within the city limits. The experts sent by USAID presented a report that indicated having such facility within the city limits was dangerous and that the facility should be relocated.
One of the factors was that there were residences, shops and schools within the blast area of the LNG storage facility.
Typical of urban sprawl in the absence of regulations and/or enforcement, a very densely development had grown around the facility after it had been constructed. One speculates that workers wanted to live near their work. Ecuador was and still is a developing country, but it implemented measures to prevent explosions and fire risk to its citizens.
On April 16, 1947, in the port of Texas City, Texas near Galveston, a ship full of fertilizer (NH4NO3, ammonium nitrate) exploded. The blast and the subsequent fires killed around 600 and injured an additional 3,500. To this day it remains the worst industrial disaster in U. S. history. Yet the state of Texas does not appear to have learned anything from the infamous 1947 episode and appears even more backward than a third world country.
The explosion in the town of West and what it reveals about its zoning practices is nothing short of disconcerting. Not only were there residences, but also a nursing home and three schools that could and were impacted by the blast from the fertilizer plant. To paraphrase a couple of old movies, “Nukes? We don’t need stinking nukes in Texas, we got plenty of fertilizer plants.”
Anyone that has visited our country’s Western states knows of their libertarian attitude toward restrictions to the lives of their citizens, especially the use of property (e.g. zoning laws). In many places there is either the absence of zoning regulations or the absence of enforcement.
While there is always the possibility of going too far with them, zoning regulations are designed to take advantage of geography, topography, special features, and other natural and manmade local characteristics. The intended result is a more logical use of the land, beautification of the surroundings and most notably safety.
In the East, there is no way that a munitions factory or any other dangerous plant can be placed in the middle of a residential area. Having a fertilizer plant with tons of explosive fertilizer and other dangerous chemicals is similar to having a munitions factory.
Individualism and friendly attitude toward business are well-known characteristics of the state of Texas. These have served the state well during hard economic times. Statistics from the recent economic depression show that Texas gained more jobs than any other state during the current recovery. Governor Perry boasted about this fact during his failed campaign for the GOP candidacy.
What we haven’t heard from Perry or any other Texas official is what the state is going to do to prevent an encore to the fertilizer plant explosion. Chances are that in the improbable case that the plant owners are legally punished for their role in the catastrophe, business as usual will continue in the state.
It is possible that the cause of the fire and explosions will be attributed to violations by the plant operators or even an Act of God. Don’t expect that Texas will violate its long history of individualism, friendliness to business and libertarianism and actually blame the state’s practices and poor safety procedures by the plant owners for the catastrophe.
If governor Perry wants to leave a lasting legacy in the state after he leaves office, he should ask the state legislature to make sure all urban centers in the state, small, medium and large, have zoning laws that protect the citizens. Additionally, that all environmental, zoning and job safety regulations be fully enforced. It’s one thing being friendly to business, but it’s another putting the safety of its citizens, especially first responders, at risk.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist <http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/21st-century-pacifist/> at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar.
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