Dr. Marty Nathan: Two explosions, two responses
NORTHAMPTON — Two days separated the explosions at the Boston Marathon and West Texas. On April 15, two homemade bombs went off in Copley Square, killing three people and wounding more than 180. On April 17 a mushroom cloud rose over the West Fertilizer factory, killing 15 people, wounding over 200, destroying 60 houses and evacuating a community.
The responses? After the tragedy in Boston, President Obama offered his prayers and said “any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.” Thousands of police, state troopers and FBI swarmed over the Boston area to track down the Tsarnaev brothers, killing the older brother and capturing the younger, who is now in federal prison. Despite the fact that the Tsarnaevs were refugees from the former Soviet Union and their case had nothing to do with the present immigration debate, Republicans threaten to block the pending immigration compromise as a result of their actions. There has been a spate of anti-Muslim acts of violence nationally and every day the national airwaves, cyberspace and newspapers are filled with further attack details, speculation about motives and proposals to prevent further such acts of terrorism.
The carnage of West, Texas, slipped quietly off those same pages and airwaves. President Obama offered only his prayers, not the full weight of justice. No discussion on the front page of the New York Times of catching the criminals, no SWAT teams or house-to-house searches, no blaming government officials for dropping the investigative ball that would have prevented this horror. And yet, it certainly could have been prevented.
According to Reuters, the West Fertilizer Plant was the site of improper storage of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate. This is 1,350 times the amount that would require a facility to self-report its stockpile to the Department of Homeland Security. Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer used around the world, and is safe if handled properly. However, it is highly explosive when ignited, as it was by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing.
In fact, West Fertilizer had not been fully inspected by any agency since 2006, when a neighbor complained to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality about a strong ammonia smell coming from the plant. That same year the EPA fined the company $2,300 for failing to update a risk management plan.
The explosion resulted from a workplace catastrophe and the main agency responsible for protecting the workers there (and thereby the community), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, should have identified and removed the risk. But when was the last OSHA inspection? According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 1985, more than 25 years ago, multiple “serious” violations of federal safety requirements were detected, for which the company paid a grand total of $30 in fines.
Why the yawning disparity between the two responses? The deaths, injuries and destruction of West Fertilizer are a corporate crime. Our government and our media have different standards for individual and corporate crimes.
In 2010, 4,500 men and women died in the workplace, more than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the entire Iraq war. Another 50,000 workers die annually from chronic diseases contracted in the workplace. Yet the only agency that protects them — us — has always been understaffed, so that a plant like West Fertilizer can expect to be inspected by OSHA only once every 67 years. The 2,200 inspectors at both federal and state level cover 7.5 million workplaces employing more than 130 million workers. That’s one inspector for every 58,000 workers. And the fines, if ever paid, are a pittance.
Now, enter the federal sequester. The agency will have to cut its $565 million budget by 8.2 percent, which the White House predicted would mean 1,200 fewer workplace inspections.
The Boston Marathon bombing made every one of us think hard about our own security. But West, Texas, reminds us real security is a complex and expensive process that results from government investment in environmental and workplace safety and health, access to necessities for all our people, particularly the most vulnerable, and ensuring that there are not different standards of justice for different types of deadly and preventable violence.
I will be joining Northampton city councilors, students, educators, workers and advocates for the poor on the steps of Northampton City Hall May 17 at 3:45 p.m. to demand a “Budget for All.” We need comprehensive security for our communities.
Marty Nathan, M.D., of Northampton is assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University and a family practitioner at Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield.