Profit over Common Good?

Maybe best characterizing the extreme in unmitigated industrial fossil frenzy is Texas (TX). North Dakota (ND) is the newcomer, but Texas is much larger and has for years been a boisterous, sometimes toxic free-for-all.

Texas prides itself in its largeness, its freedom from regulation, its low taxes, its independence, and its individualism. Outsiders see it differently. Perhaps the more simplistic see Texans in the caricature of cowboy boots and ten gallon hats, while many of the progressive-minded see Texas governors as outer-fringe and/or slow-witted, often citing governors like George W. Bush and Rick Perry for the latter.

Being spacious enough that most influential Texans don’t choke on pollution or toxic chemicals in industrial areas and most don’t work at dangerous jobs in chemicals or oil, Texan voters are satisfied with its mantra of minimal regulation. But, there are consequences.

With the poor regulation, or should I say, little regulation of what is potentially dangerous, there is loss of life and many explosions. Attitudes, especially among leaders, are somewhat cavalier. Naturally, they might – but don’t in plainspeak — say, industry with volatile products like chemicals, fertilizer, and oil are going to blow up once in a while. People get killed.

Such attitudes are still firmly established among the citizenry. Attitudes are hard to break, including the belief that government just doesn’t stick its nose in the business of business. Victims of the resulting disasters are not plentiful enough to change a whole culture. Not yet.

An industrial explosion attorney with an obvious client-based agenda, nevertheless referenced a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, saying that 120 oil industry workers in the Texas oil industry lost their lives in the course of their duties in just one year, 2008. Recent disasters and government reactions tend to indicate little or nothing is being done to increase safety for workers.

For example, soon after the explosion at the fertilizer plant in 2013, then Attorney General Abbot ruled against public disclosure of locations of dangerous chemicals. When asked about his stand during the campaign for governor, he said, in effect, that that information could easily be Googled.

Even more egregious in its handling of safety issues for workers is the state of North Dakota (ND), especially for those employed by the energy companies developing and processing Bakken shale oil. While state employees in 2013 only numbered 427,000, the fatality rate was the highest in the nation at 14.9 per 100,000 workers.  ND workplace fatalities numbered 56 in the same year. In 2013, Texas fatalities reached 508. With over 11 million workers, it gave Texas a rate of 4.4 per 100,000. By most accounts ND safety standards, inspections, and working conditions are the worst in the country for Bakken workers, reflected by the highest worker fatality rate in the nation.

In contrast, Texas is the more established labor market with fossil fuel activities. Comparing it to another large labor market,California, its 11 million workers are perhaps heavier into volatile substances. California, with its 15.4 million workers, has a workplace fatality rate of 2.4 per 100,000 workers.

Below are a few examples of fatal industrial disasters in Texas, mostly over the last 15 years. They are sampling of over a hundred of the more deadly during that period alone. Too many of them tell the story of blatant disregard of safety standards, some so egregious that workers didn’t have a prayer of protection or recovery.

DisasterWhenFatalitiesInjuries/ DamageCauses / mitigations
Arco Chemical Plant explosion and fire in Channelview, TX7/5/1990175 / Area size of city block destroyedArco agreed to pay $3.5 million in penalties. Fault in oxygen analyzer. Faulty compressor contributed to explosion.
BP refinery explosion in Texas City, TX3/23/200515170 / Part of a series of BP mishapsBP ignored warnings. Litigation against BP for wrongful death of parents.
Explosion of fertilizer plant in West, TX4/18/201335180 /150 bldgs destroyedOSHA last inspected 28 yrs ago. Fined June 2012. Handling of hazardous materials inadequate, some 270 tons of ammonium nitrate stored. Report.
DuPont chemical plant chemical spill in La Porte, TX11/15/201441La Porte facility fined previously for safety violations. Other violations cited at several plants in US.
Mason Well Services oil rig explosion3/14/20153OSHA serious violations in 2014

Too many companies share a callous disregard of safety, many calculating that the cost of liability is far less than the cost of safety measures to protect workers and people and property surrounding the facilities. Fines imposed are puny; suits against companies are often discharged or small, and oversight by government almost non-existent.

For example, an AFL-CIO report indicated that the whole of Texas has 100 workplace safety and health inspectors for 2015, and that with these resources, it would take OSHA 155 years to inspect each workplace once. North Dakota has 8 inspectors and OSHA’s one-time inspection of all workplaces would take 126 years. Oversight agency funding is more apt to be restricted by GOP dominated government.

Details of disasters often foster outrage.  The death, destruction, and suffering in the area of West, TX where the fertilizer explosion killed 35, injured 180, and destroyed 150 buildings is one example. Half of the town of a few thousand was evacuated, including a nursing home with 133 residents. Reports indicate that the blast, heard from 40 miles away, could have been prevented had proper safety precautions been taken.

Media attention of disasters usually falls short of citing unsafe conditions and basic causes. The outrage and heartbreak often only apply to a few families who suffer tragic loss. For the DuPont chemical spill, two brothers, Robert and Gilbert Tisnado and two others were killed when methyl mercaptan leaked into a factory area last year.

DuPont’s plant had had dozens of safety violations and paid small fines over several years. The leak occurred when an employee tried to open a clogged vent line for the chemical, one which had been problematic over several weeks. She called for help and by the time Robert Tisnado rushed in to help her, she was dead. Unaware of the toxic and deadly chemical leak, Robert succumbed as well. When Robert didn’t return, his brother Gilbert ran in with a vent mask. He too was overcome and died.

No procedures seemed to be in place and no detection system was installed for the deadly chemical leaks. Large overhead fans to disperse leaks had not worked for months.  Not knowing the danger or the chemical, first responders had to leave all bodies until the next day, not daring to enter the area.

One priority seems to be shared by too many company officials. Saving the money required for safety concerns is more important than the people at risk. The failure involved both the company and government agencies, in effect, valuing profit over people and the risks involved.

That attitude now seems to permeate all ventures, as union strength declines and corporate strength and profit concerns guide major economic decisions. The secretive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a current example of profit considerations overriding the greater good, including national sovereignty, safety, jobs, and working conditions – actually a global well being.

The general welfare, the common good – they are words written into many constitutions of the world, including the U.S. Constitution, but they must be written into our minds and our hearts to be truly effective.

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.