Texas fertilizer plant inspection long overdue

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WEST, Texas - Last night an enormous explosion rocked this small town situated near Waco, killing 15 and injuring hundreds.

The New York Times and others have reported that the fire began at a fertilizer plant owned by West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, only 20 miles from Waco.

There is no paid Fire Department in the area so the blaze was tackled by volunteers.

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, in whose district the town is located, told the New York Times: "The fire spread and hit some of those tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer and there was an explosion causing wide damage."

It is expected that questions will be raised regarding unsafe workplace conditions at West Fertilizer. The plant was cited for failing to obtain or qualify for a permit in 2006 after the strong smell of ammonia wafted over the plant and the town.

The plant has not been inspected even once in the last five years. Company officials argue that there is nothing unusual about the lack of inspection and point to the fact that only six Texas fertilizer plants have been inspected at all during the last five years.

A spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said this is because the agency is severely understaffed. A given plant like West Fertilizer, the spokesman said, can expect to be inspected only once every 67 years on average.

The understaffing of OSHA has had dire consequences for workplace safety across the country. In 2010 alone, some 4,500 people were killed on the job, up three percent from the previous year.

The death-on-the-job figures don't count those outside the workplaces who may suffer injury or death due to unsafe conditions at a plant. Hundreds injured in this blast, for example, are West residents not employed by West Fertilizer.

Things are expected to get even worse with OSHA because of looming huge cuts that are part of the sequester. OSHA ,under the sequester, must cut its $564.8 million budget by 8.2 percent, or almost $50 million.

The White House has already said this will mean more than 1,000 fewer inspections.

Republican plans for OSHA, meanwhile, would be even more devastating. The GOP budget calls for a $99 million cut in the agency's budget.

Photo: A resident looks on as workers struggle to put out his home, which caught fire from the fertilizer plant explosion. Rod Aydelotte/AP & Waco Tribune Herald

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