by Charles Babington
Kanawha Valley seniors can remember when flamboyant Elmer Fike operated a small Nitro chemical plant and ranted endlessly against government safety inspections. He ran as a Republican against Sen. Robert C. Byrd (singing “Bye, Bye, Bob Byrd” in a TV spot) and abetted the 1974 fundamentalist Kanawha County uprising against “godless textbooks.” After Fike’s plant closed, taxpayers were stuck with monumental pollution cleanup costs.
His clamor against inspections — echoed often by industrialists and Republicans — came to mind after the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company factory, which killed 14, injured 200 and turned much of a small town to rubble.
University of Texas law professor Thomas McGarity, author of Freedom to Harm, says the doomed plant was a classic example of inadequate inspections. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, he said Texas has no workable safety enforcement system, and federal inspectors rarely examined the dangerous plant.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the plant to provide its “worst case scenario,” operators listed possible leaks, but didn’t mention any explosion risk. The EPA took no further action.
Professor McGarity said Republicans in Congress systematically slash spending for safety inspections in an attempt to “starve” watchdog agencies, making them less able to perform their job. It’s part of “a concerted attack by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, industry trade associations and conservative think-tanks on what they see as onerous regulatory programs.” He continued. …
Since short-staffed government inspectors can’t police all plants, the law professor says whistleblowers among plant workers and nearby neighbors should file complaints and lawsuits to spotlight potential dangers.
Of course, another solution would be to value the lives of workers and agree to fully fund and staff meaningful inspections to insure compliance with safety laws. Another part of the solution is to value the lives of firefighters and rescuers who respond when emergencies do occur, and make sure they have the best preparation possible so they don’t run into situations where explosions are likely.
— Distributed by The Associated Press
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