How Industrial Dangers Get Overlooked

Aerial image of damage at the West, Texas blast site

Last week’s tragedies at the Boston Marathon and in tiny West, Texas, made one thing clear: terrorist violence fascinates early twenty-first-century Americans far more than industrial disaster, even when latter brings far more devastation. We still await word on just what set off the blast at the West Fertilizer Company, but what we have heard actually echoes past acts of terrorism: the preponderance of first-responders among the dead, the identification at ammonium nitrate as the probable charge. In fact, the blown-up Texas fertilizer plant, alongside yet another disaster in Bangladesh’s garment industry, point to global economic trends that are every bit as troubling as any terrorist attack. These episodes highlight the great, widening divide between those who bear the biggest risks from industrial activity, and those who don’t.

West Fertilizer opened its doors in 1962, the same year that Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. Carson’s book raised a hue and cry over the dangers of one kind of petroleum-derived farm chemical—pesticides—just as West Fertilizer made a new business out of selling another—petrochemical or “synthetic” fertilizers—to central Texas farmers. The coming movements against environmental pollution and for occupational safety had their political base in more urban and industrialized parts of the United States. The federal agencies responsible for their oversight, the EPA and OSHA, mainly targeted manufacturers in these regions. The companies of greatest concern were huge multinationals with massive operations, employing hundreds if not thousands of workers.

These agencies had little reason to concern themselves with the Texas hill country, or with small rural distributors like West Fertilizer, whose modestly expanding operations seemed the cutting edge of local progress. (In a county whose median income remains only 75 percent of the American average, this company’s workforce of fewer than ten employees was the regional norm.) As farmers increasingly leaned on petrochemical sustenance for their soils, similar outfits arose in other small towns across Texas and in other hinterlands. OSHA officials inspected West Fertilizer but stopped after 1985, as the Reagan administration’s restrictions, budgetary and otherwise, wore the agency down. When neighbors’ complaints about ammonium smells brought EPA inspectors to the company’s doorstep in 2006, they carried little know-how or authority to curb dangers of workplace fire or explosion. At least five other state and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, had the ability to oversee regulations at the plant, but they also showed a propensity to look at problems in isolation and impose little to no penalties for violations, while failing to share information across agencies. Local officials, meanwhile, approved the construction of apartments and a school across the street from giant fertilizer tanks.

Both in Texas and nationally, political opposition to regulations and “red tape”—a political program that helped consolidate the unequal distribution of industrial risks in the United States—came precisely from places like West’s McClennan County, a reliable Republican stronghold starting with the presidential election of 1980. Indeed, residents of the town have expressed reluctance to blame the plant owners for the explosion, citing, for example, the fact that their children went to the same schools.

The factors that contributed to the West, Texas blast resemble those that have long exacerbated industrial disaster in the developing world. The infamous 1984 Bhopal, India chemical disaster killed and wounded so many (over 5,000 dead and hundreds of thousands injured) because a Union Carbide pesticide plant operated right next to a densely populated city. I’ve visited sites in Mexico where entire new neighborhoods have been built beside the slag heap of a lead smelter.

The disaster at West Fertilizer was no Bhopal, of course—a difference that reflects another global trend. Since that 1984 catastrophe, in country after country, smaller outfits rather than multinationals have taken on handling the riskiest of materials, and the most dangerous work. From Latin America to Africa to the U.S. East Coast, hazardous enterprises are contracted or subcontracted out to smaller firms, even to individuals. The sweatshops of the clothing industry have proven just how difficult it is to escape this pattern once it has been established. As we learn more about the factory collapse that killed over 200 people in Bangladesh, now the world’s second leading garment supplier, expect details that evoke the fire that killed 112 at the country’s Tazreen factory in December—a factory that was making clothes for Sears and Walmart, among other retailers. The outsourcing trend has also taken hold in what we in the West now call “toxic trades,” such as the asbestos industry. Almost all multinationals have backed out of the production and sales of this deadly fiber, leaving existing markets to local, regional, or national firms.

The largest firms, concerned mainly about repercussions among the wealthiest of the world’s consumers, no longer have to worry so much about dirtying their hands. Both larger and smaller operations can get away with sloughing off risks on each other—until disaster actually strikes. Then, in West as much as in Dhaka, it is those who work in the smaller companies, or live around them, who suffer the most.

Not that the activities of our biggest companies themselves no longer pose threats—just look at Exxon’s latest oil spill in Arkansas or the major corporations implicated in the dangers of fracking. But our existing laws and agencies are arguably better fitted to control or halt these dangers than those posed by the hundreds of tiny distributors of agricultural chemicals like West Fertilizer, much less the mushrooming clothing factories in Bangladesh.

The world’s richest and best protected consumers probably won’t be among the victims of these disasters. Yet they will eat the food, wear the clothes, and use the energy produced by those who are. To forestall this future, we need to make our laws and agencies work better, and wherever possible apply pressure to the major players in these industries, holding the subcontracting multinationals’ feet to the fire and supporting workers who want safer conditions in their workplaces. But first, our concern—and sense of responsibility—needs to stir.


Christopher Sellers is co-editor of the recent book Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World, as well as author of Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science. He is a professor of history at Stony Brook University in New York.