Texans want limited government, their wishes should be fulfilled in West.
Here in San Diego we are certainly no strangers to natural catastrophes on a massive scale. Those of us who have lived here for any significant length of time certainly vividly recall the wildfires of 2003 and again in 2007. While I was not personally directly affected by either of the two fires, I had someone fairly close to me who was, and everyone I knew who cared about him and his family shared in the family’s tragedy and anguish—they lost everything in the 2003 Cedar fire.
It was a long process of recovery, but they got through it with a lot of help and support.
So it is not out of a complete lack of knowledge and sympathy that I comment on the events in West, Texas last week. That’s right: There was another “major” event last week, although one can be forgiven if they are left unaware of it. Events in another part of the country kept us pretty well preoccupied.
But now that the situation in Boston has more or less come to a head, our attention now turns to the central Texas town of West, where an explosion at a fertilizer factory killed 35-40 people and destroyed a significant portion of the town, including a nearby school and an apartment building.
I use quotation marks around the word major above, however, because I’m not sure how much heed we should pay to this otherwise mundane Texas locale. This was a significant event to be sure, and the people of West are fortunate that only 35-40 people are dead. Without a doubt it could have been far, far worse. But should this be a story of national import? Should the events in West, Texas, be treated with the same gravity of the San Diego wildfires, Hurricane Katrina, or the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri?
I would argue certainly not.
Understand something about Texas: It is a deeply red state; overwhelmingly Republican. Secessionist fervor runs rampant in that state, including by their governor. Texas is all about limited government, and according to their elected representatives, they want the federal government to stay out of their business. The politics of Texas would appear from the outside looking in to be in favor of confederation form of central government, where state law trumps federal law—exactly the form of government ultimately rejected by the Founders.
States’ rights is the rallying cry, but states’ rights also means states’ responsibility. Limited government means limited regulation. Emerging details of the events in West tell us that this was an entirely preventable tragedy, but the preference against regulation or oversight virtually guaranteed that something like this would eventually happen. In fact it has happened in Texas, repeatedly with several massive oil refinery explosions in the state in recent years. But safety regulations are mostly ignored in favor of letting the “job creators” create jobs in their own, unfettered way. Profitability trumps public safety.
The explosion in West was ultimately caused by a failure of oversight in deference to private industry. This was a private company acting irresponsibly, not a natural disaster. The explosion was caused by an excessive amount of ammonium nitrate on the site. Ammonium nitrate is a primary component of some large bombs used by terrorists, including the bomb used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.
According to the Department of Homeland Security rules, any entity storing more than 400lbs of ammonium nitrate must report it to the DHS. The West Fertilizer Company, according to records, at one point in late 2012 had as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate on the property, 1,350 times the amount that would normally trigger a safety inspection, and yet until the factory blew up last week, the DHS apparently didn’t even know the plant existed. “It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid,” said ranking member on the House Committee on Homeland Security Bennie Thompson (D-MS) in a statement. “This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.”
The plant also reportedly had no automatic shutoff system, no firewall, and no sprinkler system. Safety for the workers and the surrounding community was obviously not any kind of priority.
It stands to reason, then, that the owners of the private West Fertilizer Company should be held responsible for the damage they caused, not the taxpayers. After all, that’s what the Conservatives in Texas want—for business to be able to do what business does best. That also means, however, being held entirely accountable when they screw up, which is not something Conservatives have been very good at. Apparently it’s not in the Republican lexicon.
Also consider this: Texas representatives to the federal government by and large voted against providing relief to the New York and New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy. That was a natural disaster caused through no fault of anyone, and yet the conservative lawmakers of Texas determined that providing aid in that instance would be a waste of taxpayer money. Both Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, along with seven Republican members of the state’s Congressional delegation voted against Sandy relief.
Cruz is now demanding federal assistance in the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the West explosion.
Ordinarily it would be cruel to suggest that innocent bystanders be denied government assistance in a time of need. In this case, however, I find it difficult to muster up any sympathy for the victims in West. This, after all, is the government they wanted. This is the government they voted for. They selected representatives who believe that when a less conservative region of the United States requires help, it is a waste of money to provide that help. Why, then, should West, Texas—or anywhere else in the Southern United States, for that matter—be treated any differently by their own representatives? Why should we allow it to be treated differently?
As I said, states’ rights by definition also means states’ responsibility. Elections have consequences, and the people of Texas have chosen the direction they want their government to sail. Through their elected representatives the people of Texas refused to help their neighbors to the north. Why should they now expect assistance in recovering from an entirely man made and preventable event?
This would seem to be the perfect opportunity to allow Texas Conservatives to demonstrate just exactly how superior their preferred form of government is. In Texas, lax regulation is the rule. Ignoring federal regulations—as the owners of the West plant so clearly did—is considered almost patriotic.
Give them what they want. Allow them to prove how well their form of limited government works without interference from the outside. You know, freedom and liberty and all that. Who are we to “interfere” with federal government assistance? Allow them to demonstrate to the rest of us how this situation should be handled.
In California we chose a different path, and although SDG&E has not been held nearly accountable enough for the disaster in 2007, unlike many in Texas we expect our government to step in with aid to those in need.