CPR's Tom McGarity has an op-ed in this morning's Christian Science Monitor describing the regulatory environment in which that West, Texas, fertilizer plant came to have a large stockpile of explosive material while operating with little or no oversight from state or federal authorities. An April 17 explosion at the plant claimed at least 15 lives and destroyed several hundred homes.
McGarity notes that Texas has no state program for occupational health and safety, so leaves such matters to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But with its tiny staff of inspectors (2,400 in all), OSHA's its resources are stretched so thin that it has inspected the plant just once -- in the mid-1980s. Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has insufficient staff to inspect more than once a decade. Meanwhile the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is so small, it can only respond to complaints. He writes:
These regulatory agencies are supposed to be protecting the public from the risks posed by unsafe workplaces, releases of toxic pollutants, and catastrophic explosions. Yet their failure to focus on the risks posed by the West Fertilizer Company is not atypical. We saw similar failures with the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion (15 workers killed, 170 injured), the 2008 explosion at the Dixie Crystal sugar refinery in Georgia (14 workers killed), and the 2008 explosion at a Bayer CropScience chemical plant in West Virginia (two workers killed).
This lack of attention to the safety of our workplaces and neighborhoods is no accident. It is the product of a concerted attack by the US Chamber of Commerce, industry trade associations, and conservative think tanks on what they see as onerous regulatory programs – but ones that were enacted by Congress over the years to protect the public from irresponsible corporate misconduct.
These opponents of government regulation learned long ago that the best way to remove the burdens of regulatory programs was to starve the regulatory agencies and bash the bureaucracy, as I spell out in my recent book, “Freedom to Harm.” Until one delves into the facts or the next accident occurs, the agencies have only the appearance of protecting the public.
The enfeebling of the regulatory structure is one that McGarity takes up at length in his latest book, Freedom to Harm: The Lasting Legacy of the Laissez Faire Revival. The book and the op-ed are both well worth the read.