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Jason Stanford: Is Texas losing its 'fertilizer happens’ attitude?

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Jason Stanford
April 21, 2014

The arc of history is long, but it does not always bend towards justice. In Texas, it usually veers off and gets lost. A year ago, 15 people died in the fertilizer plant explosion in West, forcing the Texas Legislature to pass regulations, but these new laws had jack squat to do with fertilizer plants. Instead, the Legislature passed a bill regulating women’s uteruses.

Even for Texas, which doesn’t so much have a history as a series of cautionary tales, dealing with fertilizer plants that store ammonium nitrate such as the one in West should have been easy. That’s the stuff that domestic terrorists used to build the bomb that leveled the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Intentionally or not, this stuff kills people wholesale.

But this is Texas, where the state fire marshal lacks the power to inspect fertilizer plants unless they feel like letting him in. To store ammonium nitrate, you need to lock it up or put a fence around it, but not both, and a security camera isn’t necessary. You don’t need to install a sprinkler system—which would have contained the damage in West to a relative annoyance—and storing this explosive material in a wooden room is perfectly legal.

The real Texas Miracle is that more fertilizer plants don’t explode. Chris Connealy, the state fire marshal, politely asked for permission to inspect Texas’ fertilizer plants and found that 46 store ammonium nitrate in wood-frame buildings. His suggestion to lawmakers that they require plants to store the stuff in standalone buildings made of material that won’t burn is a lesson we learned when we read “The Three Little Pigs.”

But regulations ain’t Texan. The Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee has held three hearings, and there is no consensus that we need new safety regulations. One member, Republican Dan Flynn, cited “old-timers” who stored ammonium nitrate without taking precautions and didn’t want new regulations because so far, nothing has exploded. I’m not making this up.

“We haven’t had that many incidents. What’s kept that from happening—luck?” asked Flynn, who leads the “fertilizer happens” contingent on the committee. In an earlier hearing about the West explosion, he urged lawmakers to “keep it in perspective” and not “paperwork a company to death.”

That’s not to say that Texas is totally opposed to regulation. Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy group dedicated to the proposition that its name is not an unintentionally oxymoronic taunt, pointed out recently that since the West explosion “Texas has done more to regulate women’s bodies than it has to regulate fertilizer plants.”

 That isn’t entirely accurate. What the Legislature actually did was regulate women’s health care clinics that perform abortions, forcing many to close. The law regulated janitors’ closets, ventilation systems and the width of hallways in abortion clinics. The legislators swore up and down that they were doing this all in the name of protecting the health and safety of Texas women.

Here’s the funny thing: Getting an abortion is safer than living next door to a fertilizer plant in Texas. (And yes, there are no rules against having a fertilizer plant in a residential neighborhood or next door to a school, just as happened in West.) Getting an abortion is 10 times safer for women than giving birth, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The Texas Tribune reported that the last time a Texas woman died seeking an abortion was 2008, a safety record that the residents of West would probably take.

Joe Pickett, the Democratic chairman who has presided over the hearings, promises to push for regulations next year that will require fertilizer plants to secure ammonium nitrate in rooms made of noncombustible material. He also wants to give the state fire marshal the power to inspect and to regulate these plants. All that remains is to name the bill. I propose Demonstrating Understanding of Health, or DUH.

Texas has more than twice as many fertilizer plants with ammonium nitrate than it has abortion clinics. If successful, Pickett’s common-sense reforms would bend the arch of history back toward progress. If not, Texas can go back to regulating lady parts. Republicans like that here.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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