Thursday, April 25, 2013

Disasters - Deliberate and Negligent

Ever since 911, Americans have been terrified of terrorism. Well, that's understandable. It was one of the most tragic disasters that ever befell our country. It was perpetrated deliberately by people who hated us and wanted to inflict brutal wounds on our nation. Because of 911, we went to war in two countries, one of them totally blameless in the 911 attack. We compromised our national principles by engaging in torture and extraordinary rendition, locking people up in Guantanamo for years without benefit of counsel or proof of guilt. We reveled in humiliating prisoners in Abu Ghraib by smearing them with feces and leading them on their hands and knees with dog collars and leashes, behavior that was even more humiliating for us, a supposedly civilized nation, than them. We initiated a huge new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, that costs a fortune to operate and seems to have little oversight in what it allowed to do. Even today, our shadowy drone program is at least an indirect result of 911.

There have been several attempts at terrorist attacks since September 11 but until the Boston bombers, few successes resulting in deaths. When something like Boston happens, the media goes into over-drive, spending 24/7 on this one event, repeating the same news, re-playing the same videos, often getting the information wrong in their rush to be first, sometimes not even attempting to get their facts straight before making accusations as in the shameful case of the New York Post and several conservative bloggers.

And while we get caught up in the hysteria of terrorism, corporate America goes on its merry way, subjecting our country and our citizens to even more savage injury, albeit, not deliberate, unless you call extreme disregard for safety of the people and the land, deliberate.

The most recent case of corporate malfeasance is the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. No one is suggesting that foul play was involved. No perpetrator set out to hurt people, so far as we now know. Nevertheless, 14 people died, most of them firefighters. Over 200 were injured, some severely. Others are still listed as missing. Fifty homes were destroyed as was an apartment complex. A nursing home was damaged as well as a school only 1/5 of a mile from the plant.

We know this plant did not report to the Department of Homeland Security the massive amount of ammonium nitrate it had stored there....or if DHS would have done anything about it if they had known. We know that although there were seven governmental agencies supposedly responsible for overseeing the plant, it underwent its last full inspection 25 years ago and its last partial inspection in 2006. We know that it was cited for having no risk management plan at that time. We know that the owners declared it a "no risk" facility. We know OSHA last visited the West Fertilizer plant in 1985! 

All this, despite it being common knowledge that the ingredients for making fertilizer can be extremely volatile and dangerous if not handled properly. There are a lot of other plants just like the one in West, Texas, presumably receiving the same lax inspections.

A plant explosion isn't as sexy as terrorism so the media provided only minimal coverage of the Texas disaster although almost 5 times as many people died and much more property was destroyed.

Shortly before that, we had the rupture of a 60-year-old oil pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas, which released thousands of barrels of tar sands oil into an upscale residential neighborhood. The pipeline, owned by Exxon-Mobile, carries oil from Illinois to Texas. Its rupture forced the evacuation of two dozen families. Most of the residents had no clue that an oil pipeline ran under their neighborhood.

In typical Exxon fashion, the company rushed in with their own people, reassuring and cleaning and cutting checks for relocation expenses in an effort to placate the victims of the spill. They even sent their own doctors to assure parents of sick children not to worry, heavens no, there was absolutely no cause for alarm. I don't know about you but I'd want a second opinion if it was my kid.

In 2010, a pipeline, owned by Enbridge, Inc., that carried tar sands crude from Canada ruptured and spewed oil in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, despoiling 40 miles of previously pristine water. That's been almost 3 years ago now. A million gallons of oil have been recovered at a cost of $1 billion but the EPA says there is still more.

Because, you see, bitumen, which is its actual name, is the dirtiest and stickiest oil of all. It begins as a thick substance the consistency of peanut butter, steamed or strip mined from sandy soil. It is then thinned with several chemicals, including benzene, a known human carcinogen. At this point, it is known as dilbit. It is now thin enough to flow through a pipeline.

If that pipeline ruptures, however, dilbit doesn't float like regular crude oil. Instead it sinks, clinging to rocks, plants and animals.

Enbridge, Inc. has a history of corrosion problems with its pipelines. In 2008, it identified 140 defects. These are supposed to be reported and repaired within 180 days. Within 180 days, Enbridge had fixed 26 of its defects. It applied for a year's extension to decide what to do about the others and then another extension after that.

The very defect that finally caused the Kalamazoo River rupture had been detected at least 6 times previously.

The company's vice-president of U.S. operations had assured Congress that they were prepared to leap into action immediately in the event of an emergency. They had fail-safe alarms in place. In fact, when the alarms actually sounded, employees believed there was a bubble in the line that would eventually fix itself and ignored them.

Enbridge's handling of of the Kalamazoo River oil spill was a comedy of errors although perhaps not so humorous to the 150 families that had to be permanently relocated from their homes.

Turns out, the oil companies have never researched and developed methods for quickly and efficiently cleaning up tar sands oil spills. But are you surprised? They haven't researched and developed quick and efficient methods for cleaning up regular crude oil spills either.

Which brings us to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly the worst ecological disaster in our country's history. April 20, 2010 - an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - 11 employees killed and 17 injured. A mile down the well had blown apart, releasing a seemingly endless fountain of water into the gulf. BP attempted many times to heal the breach and failed, one time they had the bright idea of using golf balls to block the pipe! Yeah, that worked about as you'd expect it to. Eighty-seven days and 210 million gallons later, the well was finally capped, leaving behind despoiled wetlands, dead marine life, oil-soaked birds, filthy beaches and jobless fishermen.

Meanwhile workers in the area had begun experiencing various ailments, much like gulf war soldiers - skin problems, pulmonary problems, respiratory problems, headaches, memory loss.

We will see what the BP trial brings now that our recollections have faded and we've moved on to newer and even more dramatic disasters. Whatever they have to pay I expect it will be a miniscule portion of their profits.

There are other examples. In 1989, hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil from the damaged Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaskan waters.In 2005, an explosion in an oil refinery in Texas City, Texas killed 15 and injured 170, despite numerous safety citations. More recently, Shell Oil received approval to drill in the arctic but after both its rigs ran off course, they abandoned the plan, admitting they hadn't a clue how to do it safely.

Some industries are inherently more dangerous than others. That would include oil rigs and fertilizer plants. We can never stop every tragedy from happening but we can at least try. We'll go to any lengths to catch a terrorist, as we should, but when it comes to corporate destruction our attitude seems to be "ho hum". Meanwhile the companies appear to consider the penalties they pay simply part of the cost of doing business.

Trying to stop terrorism doesn't preclude us from also trying to make employees and the environment safer by forcing companies to exhibit consciences they don't appear to have on their own.