From Poor Regulation to Terrorism

You might think the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that leveled the town and killed 14 people would have given pause to those conservative policymakers and boosters in the Lone Star State who proudly boast of a “Texas Way” in which job-creators aren’t hassled by pointy-headed bureaucrats and regulators or income taxes or any of those other new-fangled socialist devices. But no: under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, we learn from a New York Times story today, Texas government and business officials are going out of their way to reiterate that this is a place where the Bidnessman walks tall, and poor living standards and high workplace risks are just the price of keeping job creators fat and happy.

Texas has always prided itself on its free-market posture. It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.

But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs….

“The Wild West approach to protecting public health and safety is what you get when you give companies too much economic freedom and not enough responsibility and accountability,” said Thomas O. McGarity, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and an expert on regulation.

So I’d bet today’s news that Texas law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation based on reports that federal agents found bomb-making materials in the possession of a paramedic who was on the scene in West is going to generate a lot of excitement in the state’s conservative circles. True, the suspect who was arrested by the ATF isn’t an Arab or even a Chechen, and no one knows at this point if he had anything to do with the explosion, and if so, what his motives might have been.

But Lord a-mercy, wouldn’t it be nice if it was a terrorist and not an industry or lawmakers or regulators we ought to be looking at in connection with this tragedy? The very possibility must be worth toasting in certain circles during today’s Texas happy hours.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.