Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Explosion at West: Who Regulates the Regulators?

When about 60 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer blew up last April 17, killing fifteen people and destroying $100 million worth of property in the town of West, Texas, a great many people were surprised about a lot of things.  I’m not sure how many citizens of West knew enough Texas history to recall the 1947 Texas City explosion that killed 581 people when two ships carrying ammonium nitrate exploded.  In testimony before the U. S. Senate this week, it was revealed that members of the West fire department were unaware of the potential hazards of the ammonium nitrate stored at the fertilizer plant where they were called to fight a fire shortly before the explosion occurred.  A chemical engineer at the same hearing stated that if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules regarding ammonium nitrate storage had been enforced at the plant, the explosion might not have happened.  The very fact of the hearings, though, is something that brings up a broader question of how laws and regulations concerning ammonium nitrate are made and enforced in the U. S. today.

Handling ammonium nitrate is a little like playing the lottery in reverse:  most of the time nothing happens, but once in a great while, you hit big.  If the fertilizer compound was as dangerous as plutonium, for example, there would be no question about imposing strict and rigid regulations on its handling and use.  But many thousands of tons of the product are used for both fertilizer and intentionally as explosives every year without incident.  What do you do about a product that is safe 99.999...% of the time, but every so often hauls off and makes the headlines with a major disaster?

This is fundamentally a problem of justice and prudence, two of the four cardinal virtues recognized by the medieval age (the other two are temperance and fortitude, in case you’re wondering). 

One way to deal with the problem would be for every private firm that handles ammonium nitrate to comply voluntarily with the technical recommendations of OSHA and other experts:  store ammonium nitrate far away from other chemicals and combustible materials, ensure that storage facilities have sprinkler systems to prevent fires, keep the stuff in non-combustible containers, and so on.  I have never run a fertilizer plant, so I can’t say how much more this would cost compared to the way things are done today.  But I suspect it would be more or less of a challenge for every plant handling ammonium nitrate to change its ways as described.  It would be the right thing to do, assuming the costs wouldn’t be so prohibitive as to bankrupt the outfit (and the West plant, it turns out, had gone through bankruptcy a few years earlier).  And maybe some plants and distributors are taking these actions already.  But probably not all of them will.

Another way to deal with the situation would be for us to hire enough government regulators, inspectors, and other bureaucrats to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again on U. S. soil.  This is where things get fuzzy with regard to how laws and regulations are made at the federal level. 

In principle, the United States is a government of, by, and for the people.  That should put “the people” at the top, as the ultimate authority over not only Congress (which is the branch of government most responsive to the people’s will, at least nominally), or over the President, but even the judiciary as well.  It is nothing new to say that this authority has had difficulty getting itself asserted in recent decades.  I would like to concentrate on one particular aspect of this problem:  the ever-growing presence of federal regulatory agencies and agents, and how they can be made more responsible to the public they are supposed to serve.

In a recent issue of the conservative journal National Review, columnist Rob Long points out that we now have a situation in which unchecked and largely unmonitored growth of federal bureaucracies is virtually guaranteed.  As federal-employee unions campaign for administrations and representatives who favor the indefinite increase of government bureaucracies, the number and power of unelected bureaucrats increases in an apparently never-ending spiral. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, IF every dollar spent on a bureaucrat yields a true dollar’s worth of improvement in the health, safety, and general well-being of the commonwealth.  But who thinks that is the case?  And what mechanisms do we have in place for ensuring that bad and unproductive bureaucrats and bureaucracies are reigned in or eliminated?  From what I can tell, one of the main checks on bureaucratic power is hearings such as the one in the U. S. Senate last week.  If it goes as most such hearings go, members of Congress browbeat bureaucrats before the cameras for a day or two and then everyone goes back to business as usual, which for Congress means raising funds to be re-elected, and for bureaucrats means. . . well, it depends on the bureaucrat.

This is not to tar all government employees with the same brush.  Millions of them are hard-working, dedicated, and deliver the taxpayers’ money’s worth in the form of useful service.  But my quibble is with the absence of an efficient, effective, and swift way to feed back problems with governmental regulatory actions (or inactions) so that the bureaucracy responds and gets continually better.

In private enterprises under capitalism, the market is the main way that efficiency is rewarded and incompetence is punished.  But I am not calling for the privatization of government, necessarily.  I’m not really sure what the answer is. 

Possibly (and this is coming from an educator, so take it with a grain of salt) some type of civic and even moral education would help.  In a better world than the one we have,  the managers of the West fertilizer plant would have known enough, and spent enough, to store ammonium nitrate in a safer location.  The members of the fire department would have known enough to call for an emergency evacuation at the first sign of fire in the fertilizer plant’s ammonium nitrate storage area.  And any government regulators involved would have been local people, people who lived in the town they protected and knew the people whose lives they were concerned about.  They might have played roles in helping the firefighters and plant owners learn and change their ways.  But as for the way things are now and as far as the citizens of West were concerned last April 17, the billions of dollars spent in Washington over the years on OSHA, the EPA, and all the other alphabet-soup outfits with a remote connection to this tragedy were wasted.

Sources:  I used material from a “” subscriber-only site maintained by the Austin American Statesman, namely an article by Brenda Bell posted on June 27, 2013 at  I also consulted Wikipedia’s articles on the Texas City disaster and the cardinal virtues.  Rob Long’s article “Bureaucratic Rot,” which may contain more information about fish guts than you care to read, appeared on pp. 21-22 of the July 1, 2013 issue of  National Review.

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