Hoping Disasters Won't Happen Again

Hydrogen fluoride could be the next Pasadena, Texas, or Texas City or the more recent West,Texas.

We seem to believe in faith: Faith that the disaster we see today will never happen again.  On April 17, 2013, an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company plant killed at least 14 people and injured roughly 200. Uncannily, fertilizer disasters tend to happen in April, but their growing number has never lead to the kind of regulation and training that makes first responders prepared — or unnecessary. 


Gary BeeversRecently three representatives of the United Steel Workers (USW) released a report on the storage of hydrogen fluoride, a highly toxic chemical used in refining oil. The report, based on a yearlong survey, showed that 50 refineries are storing 2,200 pounds of a chemical that ‘kills everything in sight’ should there be a spill. Noting that refineries are located in busy metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and Houston, Gary Beevers, International Vice President of the United Steel Workers, likened a hydrogen fluoride release to the industrial disaster in Bhopal, India, where from three to eight thousand people died from exposure to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals and many more have suffered long-term health effects.

Jim Lefton, Assistant to the Director of USW, added that USW has been holding meetings about the dangers in towns that could be affected, but that town officials did not show up. He added that hospitals, nurses and doctors are not trained to deal with such a disaster, nor are theplant-explosion-texas.jpeg17-1280x960 hourly workforce that work at the plants.

Their concern was palpable. Their impassioned comments should resonate in the wake of the recent West, Texas fertilizer disaster. As one resident there said to a Wall Street Journal reporter,

“It [the plant] was always just there. We never thought about it.”

Yet a New York Times article on May 10, 2013 reported that the explosion has not resulted in concerns about worker safety and lax regulations. The article added that, as federal investigators sift through the rubble, some people in the town argue that Texas’ culture itself “contributed to the calamity.”

That culture is not solely about Texas: it is a national tendency to hope that each disaster is an anomaly, and to believe that safety is ‘the other guy’s problem’. An executive at a national engineering company that designs transportation systems noted that,

disaster chart

“We used to factor in one fatality for every million dollars in the contract.”

Demands for worker safety have slowly changed that by lengthening the schedules to build large projects. Yet the projects get built. The ‘Big Dig’ in Boston is now a reality, and the city is enjoying a renaissance that has attracted new businesses and visitors. The USW is the organization that looks after the workers in utility plants, but also has concerns for the people in the surrounding communities. Noting reductions in the number of workers at utilities, Mr. Beevers said that many are working with a ‘skeleton crew’. The hope is that his metaphor is not prescient.