West, Texas disaster: Emergency response can’t save as many lives as prevention

April 18, 2013

West Fertilizer Co. ruins after an April 17, explosion, in West, Texas.  Reuters photo by Mike Stone, via Business Insider.

West Fertilizer Co. ruins after an April 17, explosion, in West, Texas. Reuters photo by Mike Stone, via Business Insider.

A nasty fire, a small, brave band of volunteer firefighters, a commonly-used but very dangerous agriculture chemical, unfortunate winds, inadequate emergency response equipment, and bad siting, seem to have combined to make yet another cautionary tale from yet another explosion disaster in Texas (remembering the natural gas explosion in New London in 1937 that killed 300, mostly school kids, and the Texas City fertilizer explosions of 1947 that killed 576).

133 people were evacuated — safely, we hope — from the nearby nursing home.  The middle school caught fire, and school has been cancelled for at least two days.  166 people are known to have been treated for injuries at hospitals in three or four different counties, in a radius of 100 miles of West.  How many are dead?  That tragic toll is not yet known. (As of noon April 18, wire stories say “as many as 15 killed,” a wonderfully small number considering the size of the blast.

Gov. Rick Perry asks people to pray.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, a good guy, posted a Red Cross help link on his Facebook site — so people can donate blood. (Here’s the link:  http://www.redcross.org/news/article/West-TX-Disaster-Response-FAQs )

My faith in Texas’s governor and attorney general doing the right thing is very, very low.  So I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Watson, on his Facebook site, if more can’t be done, to prevent these disasters and their large impacts.

Is the Attorney General, Greg Abbott, or the governor going to do anything to check on the other fertilizer plants in Texas?  Texas CEQ asks to be alerted if anhydrous ammonia plants are within 3,000 feet of a school.  Two schools, a nursing home, and many homes were well within that radius of West Texas Fertilizer.

The West Disaster should be a lesson — but is anyone in state government learning from it?

Fire departments need special equipment and special training to fight these fires — but Gov. Perry whacked the hell out of the money to pay for volunteer fire departments, like West’s, two years ago.

Mr. Watson, who is looking out for Texans, for our kids, for our businesses and communities?

These disasters are preventable, almost always; there are steps that can be taken to insure that damages and injuries will be kept to a minimum in the event of a disaster.

Who will step up to lead the disaster prevention efforts that were not followed prior to this disaster?

  • School siting needs to be checked, as well as other facilities.  West Independent School District (ISD) has five schools.  Two, the high school and the middle school, were close enough to the fertilizer plant to be damaged.  The middle school’s roof was crushed in by the blast, and heat from the blast appears to have started a fire at the school — it appears a complete loss.  The roof of the new high school collapsed.  At least 40% of the school facilities in West were wiped out.  Had the incident occurred during school hours, the scope of the human disaster would have been incalculable.
    From Google Maps, it’s clear the school is less than 100 feet from the Adair facility, and probably less than 300 feet from the storage tanks that exploded.  Texas Commission on Environmental Quality asks anhydrous ammonia handling facilities to state whether there are any schools within 3,000 feet of the facility, a distance I presume is related to blast radius.   A nursing home, and the town hospital, also were within that radius.  TCEQ rules appear designed to stop emissions of gases that pollute, and not designed to promote safety.  Other than the federal OSHA regulations, it is unclear to me whether any state agency actually looks at safety of these facilities.  If so, they were asleep on this one; this facility was sited in 1962, but even then it was too close to residences and schools.

    English: Firefighters Memorial in Texas City

    Firefighters Memorial in Texas City; the 1947 explosions killed every member of the volunteer fire department. Photo from Wikipedia

  • Fire department fire fighting capabilities and training must be up to date.  West has a volunteer fire department.  Two years ago, at the request of Gov. Perry, state funding to pay volunteer fire fighters, train them, and equip them, was slashed (oddly at the height of wildfire season).  Sad experience in the Texas City disaster should have been a clarion notice to all Texas firefighters NOT to use water to fight fires near or in ammonia concentrations (576 people died in 1947 when water was used in a futile attempt to distinguish fire in a fertilizer loaded ship; water contributes to the explosive qualities of the stuff).  Most volunteer fire departments in these small, agricultural-support towns, will have nothing but water to use to snuff out fires — even if that’s the wrong stuff to use.  In any case, training should be done so that especially volunteer fire fighters know when to run and when to fight, and what to use, when they fight.
  • Ammonia storage tanks and transfer facilities are common in agricultural areas.  How many local governments really have an idea of the dangers inherent with these businesses.  How many other facilities like the one in West are there dotted around Texas, where fertilizer compounds were unloaded from railroad cars and stored, and then loaded into tanks for farmers to take to their fields?

We don’t need to over react.  Compared to, say, gasoline, anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrates are pikers.  Gasoline is more explosive than TNT, loaded with different carcinogens, and its fumes are toxic to almost all forms of life.  And yet we safely move millions of gallons of the stuff every day, and you sit with about 12 gallons of the stuff under the rear seat of your car.  Hazardous substances can be handled safely.

Safe handling of hazardous and poisonous materials requires thought, education, and the spreading of information.


Texas secessionists ecstatic . . . over what, they don’t know

November 30, 2012

Not sure how I got on the mailing list, but I’ll take it.

Texas bugs out on the U.S., by Paul Windle

Graphic for the New York Times, by Paul Windle

To those who commented here that the Texas secessionists are joking, and the petition means nothing at all, please note the e-mail I got today from Roxanna M.  Roxanna is the thoughtful person behind the petition AGAINST the Texas secession petition.  Heed what she says:

Hey friends!

I want to thank each of you again!  I’ve received so many emails, and I am going to be getting back to everyone, but I work two jobs so it will take me a bit.  But thank you all for your interest and your support.  It’s amazing.  There are a couple people, though, that have sent emails calling me some not-so-nice names.  I will not be responding to you, aside from this.  Thanks for being engaged and interested enough to respond, though.

I have had quite a few requests about how many signatures we have so far.  As of today this petition has 13,011 signatures. [Emphasis added here] I think we’re off to a pretty good start!  This is my first petition, so I am open to any suggestions or ideas any of you have.

I checked the “We the People” petition the day I sent out the other email, and yes, at that time the number was 117,889.  I checked it twice.  The number at that time was accurate.  It may be more now.  Unfortunately, my roommate also sends me random text messages when they get more signatures on the petition.  He was very excited when they hit 100,000.

Here’s where you can find the petition to secede:

It’s actually at 118,203 as of today.

I honestly have no idea how they plan on Texas to go it alone.  There’s a lot of boasting about the our economy and how it’s the best, but I haven’t seen or heard a concrete plan as of yet.  I have heard hints that if Texas isn’t granted a peaceful secession then this could end up another Civil War.  I certainly hope not, and tend to ignore those comments, but things like that are being said.

I do not have a Facebook page for the petition.  I have posted links on Facebook, like on Formidable Republican Opposition’s page.  If anyone wants to start one, feel free!  Just let me know and I’ll send out an email with the link.  I’ve gone to a couple forums for Texas Democrats/Independents and posted links as well.  But, like I said, I’m new at this, and I work two jobs, so if any of you have ideas I’m happy to hear them.

I know that I made some grammar mistakes in the petition, and I apologize.  Unfortunately, once someone signed it (besides me), it wouldn’t let me revise it.  So yeah.  We’ll make do, hopefully.

For those of you who would like to read a bit on the secession petition:

Star-Telegram article

Examiner article with links of sites supporting Texas secession:

Any other questions, comments, concerns, just let me know.  You all are absolutely fantastic!  Thanks so much! [Note this is the petition AGAINST secession.]

Many of those who signed and advocate Texas secession appear to lack an idea of scale, as well as any idea about how government works in a constitutional federal republic.

118,000 signatures from Texas?  Wholly apart from the not-really-joking suggestion that at least 50,000 of those come from Oklahoma, that’s less than the population of rural-to-suburban, southern Dallas County.  Duncanville, Desoto, Cedar Hill, and Lancaster, and all the unincorporated nodules at sea in the area, can’t get Dallas County to pay much attention to them, let alone Texas, let alone the U.S. Congress to consider letting such a tiny group secede.  Compare the 118,000 with more than 3 million Texans who voted for Obama, consider the most of the more-than 3 million who voted for Romney and consider themselves proud citizens of the U.S. who would never consider secession, and at least ten million other Texans who think secession is a stupid idea, and you get a clue as to how inconsequential 118,000 people can be.

Please consider the facts; as John Mashey suggests, and as Roxanna warns, let the secessionists make their case, and tally the costs and benefits.  It’s not a pleasant tally:

  • Gov. Rick Perry opposes the idea, dismisses it as silly and says to move on — he’s otherwise a rather randyesque maverick who loves to slam the federal government if it’ll get him a few votes or a case of beer, or a favor from a businessman.  Truth be told, Perry still thinks he can be president of the U.S., which would be impossible were Texas to secede, and even unlikely were secessionists to get any traction from the state government.
  • On straight up accounting, federal income taxes versus direct aid from the federal government to Texas, Texas is modestly a payer rather than a taker of federal largesse.  However, that accounting does not include the several Air Force Bases, Navy installations, major Army and Marine facilities, Houston’s NASA Control Center, and other federal establishments in the state.  Texas pays almost nothing for border protection, for example, while it costs billions just along the Texas-Mexico border; Texas cannot protect its own borders without the U.S.  Texas is an economic shell waiting to collapse, without the U.S.  That does not account for the several dozens of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, who would have to move out, to stay domestic corporations.  This includes Exxon-Mobil, AT&T, Frito Lay, and dozens of others.
  • If anyone in the Texas Lege thinks it’s a good idea, they’ve got the good sense to keep quiet about it.  Texas needs federal money to balance its budget, and the Texas Constitution requires a balanced budget.  As a nation, Texas would have to borrow big time, probably spend into deficits (as responsible nations do from time to time) — that is not a popular idea among Texas conservatives, who would be the most likely supporters of secession.
  • With no one in the state government supporting the idea, 117,000 signatures on a petition is about the number of Texans Rick Perry snubs his nose at on a daily basis.  The Great State of Texas is not a signatory to any secession idea.  Congress won’t agree anyway, but especially Congress won’t act contrary to the State of Texas’s wishes.
  • While the First Amendment specifically protects American citizens’ right to petition for redress of grievances, there is no process set by which that is done on such issues, really.  Notice this petition is really just a letter of suggestion to the President, and not any requirement for any action.  Obama likes to listen to citizens (no comment on previous people holding his position, of course); this “We the People” process is a public outreach effort by the Obama administration.  Their promise is, if there is a serious issue, they’ll work to answer questions.  The informal process is, on any issue, serious or not, they’ll answer if there are more than 25,000 people who ask (“sign the petition”).  By gathering 117,000 signatures, those people have earned the right, under Obama’s magnanimity, for a letter.  That letter will probably say, “Sorry you’re disappointed, but we will continue to be the united states, in the United States of America.”
  • Were it a petition to Congress, there is still no requirement for any action. The Constitution forbade Congress from even discussing action against slavery for 20 years after the document became effective, Article II Section 9.  During that time, thousands of Americans petitioned Congress to end slavery.  Congress noted the receipt of those petitions somewhere, and did nothing.  After 1808, Congress received thousands of other petitions, and while taking note of them, rarely did anything about them.  We have a right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and that prevents us from being thrown into jail for pointing out the government is screwing up.  But that right ends with the petition.  There is no right of any response, nor are such petitions considered demands that government actually act.  Secessionists seem almost giddy that if they get a bunch of signatures, secession is a reality.  That’s some potent moonshine, but it’s no more than moonshine talking.

John Mashey suggested in another thread that secessionists should start running the numbers now.  They might learn from people who wanted the Iron Curtain to fall, for more than 40 years.  They seriously thought about how to fix things, and in much of Eastern Europe, once the oppressive communist regimes fell, serious people stepped up to make serious reforms in government, and some good stuff resulted — see the Czech Republic, Germany’s reunification, the economic boom and increased liberty in Poland, and the great increase in business in Estonia, for examples.  In sharp contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood complained about Egypt’s government for 50 years.  But when that government fell (not much thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood), it turned out they had not thought about how to actually run a nation; after more than a shaky year and a questionable election, the government is still wracked by demonstrations by nominal allies of the government, asking reforms of actions the former Muslim Brotherhood member President Morsi has already taken.

For good government to work, first, government must work.  Texas secessionists have not even thought through a secession process, let alone how to make things work afterward.

But Roxanna notes secessionists have given little thought to any serious next step, even of just getting a letter from President Obama.  Roxanna hasn’t seen any analysis, nor has anyone else.

Take Mashey’s suggestion, secessionists, and start running the numbers.  It will help you avoid disappointment soon, in the near-future, and perhaps for the rest of your life.

Yesterday Kathryn and I toured the National Memorial in Oklahoma City.  It is a grim, curt and hard reminder that political discontent can drive malcontents to horrific action.  Secessionists need to rein in their rabid nationalism before it destroys their patriotism.  Timothy McVeigh had a plan to try to cut things asunder, but nothing else other than ill-intent.


One more time: No, Texas cannot secede; no, Texas can’t split itself (2012 edition)

November 13, 2012

Someone in Texas, I swear, sells do-it-yourself-at-home lobotomy kits.  Worse, about 50,000 Texans buy the kits every year, and give themselves a self-lobotomy.  Then, when something happens in national politics or something else that doesn’t please them, having put an ice pick through that part of the brain that carries reason and self-control, and scrambled it, they start spouting nonsense about “Texas ought to secede.”

Texas splits from union, trespasses on Mexico

If Texas seceded from the U.S., would it be trespassing on Mexico?

This issue heated up last just after President Barack Obama took office and stopped the national slide into recession; Texans got ticked off that Obama hadn’t let them slip down the bung hole, and the Tea Party was born to push and make sure no one stopped such a slide in the future.  Rick Perry, our peripatetic occasional governor and head coyote persecutor, threw gasoline on the fire.  I posted this explanation back then.

Comes the 2012 election, Democrats and other supporters of Obama rise up and re-elect him.  One of the previously mentioned fools found a feature President Obama’s team added to the White House website, whereby anyone can start a petition on a subject; Obama being the fair-minded man these fools claim he is not, Obama and his team said they’d answer any petition that got more than 25,000 signatures.  Several people started petitions asking for secession.

Think about that for a moment.  They’re appealing to President Obama to let them secede, because they don’t like Obama’s reelection.  Compounding the irony, they’re using a citizen-feedback system designed by Obama’s team.

But then the pro-secession, anti-Obama people threw all sense to the wind.  This process is almost outside official channels.  While Congress will accept petitions, there’s no guarantee that these petitions will go to Congress — only that the Obama White House will answer the petition in some form.

More than a few of the signers are convinced that if they hit the magic number of 25,000 signatures, the action becomes semi-official and will get real consideration.  Here’s news:  You might get a letter from President Obama.  Won’t that please them no end?

Gov. Perry already disowned the current round of zaniness.  It interferes with the zaniness in the run-up to the bi-annual Texas State Legislature meeting, for which “prefiling” of bills started this week.  Even and perhaps especially political zanies can handle only so much zaniness at one time — they’ve hit their zenith of zaniness for 2012.

But the bloggers and Facebookers still jump up and down.  Now, Dear Reader, you are a person of some intelligence:  You don’t think evolution is “from the pit of Hell,” you vaccinate your children and get an annual flu shot, you haven’t been abducted by alien spaceships recently, you worry that your home insurance will continue to climb until we act as a nation to stop air pollution that causes climate change, you understand Hawaii has been a state since 1960 and so a man born there after that, or at any time after annexation in 1898, is a U.S. citizen eligible to be U.S. president, and you don’t fear the UN is going to come take your golf course away (especially since golf-loving Barack Obama is our president); so I warn you, those yahoos who forgot entirely about the Civil War and think they might get a chance to secede from the U.S. and NASCAR just by putting their name on an internet petition, are not going to believe you, nor will they grant any credence to the facts outlined below, as to just why Texas cannot and will not secede.

But, here’s the explanation, anyway:


Rick Perry put his foot into something during one of the Astro-turf “tea parties” on April 15 [2009].  Someone asked him about whether Texas should secede from the United States, as a protest against high taxes, or something.

The answer to the question is “No, secession is not legal.  Did you sleep through all of your U.S. history courses?  Remember the Civil War?”

Alas, Perry didn’t say that.

Instead, Perry said it’s not in the offing this week, but ‘Washington had better watch out.’

He qualified his statement by saying the U.S. is a “great union,” but he said Texans are thinking about seceding, and he trotted out a hoary old Texas tale that Texas had reserved that right in the treaty that ceded Texas lands to the U.S. in the switch from being an independent republic after winning independence from Mexico, to statehood in the U.S.

So, rational people want to know:  Does Perry know what he’s talking about?

No, he doesn’t.  Bud Kennedy, columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (still one of America’s great newspapers despite the efforts of its corporate owners to whittle it down), noted the error and checked with Gov. Perry’s history instructors at Texas A&M and his old high school, both of which said that Perry didn’t get the tale from them.  (Score one for Texas history teachers; rethink the idea about letting people run for state office without having to pass the high school exit history exam.)

A&M professor Walter L. Buenger is a fifth-generation Texan and author of a textbook on Texas’ last secession attempt. (The federal occupation lasted eight years after the Civil War.)

“It was a mistake then, and it’s an even bigger mistake now,” Buenger said by phone from College Station, where he has taught almost since Perry was an Aggie yell leader.

“And you can put this in the paper: To even bring it up shows a profound lack of patriotism,” Buenger said.

The 1845 joint merger agreement with Congress didn’t give Texas an option clause. The idea of leaving “was settled long ago,” he said.

“This is simple rabble-rousing and political posturing,” he said. “That’s all it is.  . . .  Our governor is now identifying himself with the far-right lunatic fringe.”

Three false beliefs about Texas history keep bubbling up, and need to be debunked every time.  The first is that Texas had a right to secede; the second is that Texas can divide itself into five states; and the third is that the Texas flag gets special rights over all other state flags in the nation.

Under Abraham Lincoln’s view the Union is almost sacred, and once a state joins it, the union expands to welcome that state, but never can the state get out.  Lincoln’s view prevailed in the Civil War, and in re-admittance of the 11 Confederate states after the war.

The second idea also died with Texas’s readmission.  The original enabling act (not treaty) said Texas could be divided, but under the Constitution’s powers delegated to Congress on statehood, the admission of Texas probably vitiated that clause.  In any case, the readmission legislation left it out.  Texas will remain the Lone Star State, and not become a Five Star Federation. (We dealt with this issue in an earlier post you probably should click over to see.)

Texas’s flag also gets no special treatment.  I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard Texans explain to Boy Scouts that the Texas flag — and only the Texas flag — may fly at the same level as the U.S. flag on adjacent flag poles.  Under the flag code, any flag may fly at the same level; the requirement is that the U.S. flag be on its own right.

Gov. Perry is behind Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in polling of a head-to-head contest between the two to see who will be the Republican nominee for governor in 2010 — Hutchison is gunning to unseat Perry.  He was trying to throw some red meat to far-right conservative partisans who, he hopes, will stick by him in that primary election.

Alas, he came off throwing out half-baked ideas instead.  It’s going to be a long, nasty election campaign.  [Yeah, those two paragraphs are dated; they are here as historical footnote.]


Update [2009]: A commenter named Bill Brock (the Bill Brock?) found the New York Times article from 1921 detailing John Nance Garner’s proposal to split Texas into five.  Nice find!

Another update: How much fuss should be made over the occasional wild hare move for some state to secede?  Probably not much.  A few years ago Alaska actually got a referendum on the ballot to study secession.  The drive to secede got nowhere, of course.  I was tracking it at the time to see whether anyone cared.  To the best of my knowledge, the New York Times never mentioned the controversy in Alaska, and the Washington Post gave it barely three paragraphs at the bottom of an inside page.

Texas has a slightly grandiose view of itself. TM Daily Post image

Texas has a slightly grandiose view of itself. TM Daily Post image

More and Related Information:

Geographic literacy and logic become victims in Republican presidential campaign in Iowa

January 3, 2012

Rick Perry shooting at the coyote in the sky - Mad Mike's America

Rick Perry shooting at the coyote in the sky - Mad Mike's America

Sidney Crosby, Toronto Maple Leafs  - Business Insider

Sidney Crosby, Toronto Maple Leafs - Business Insider


I have it on good authority that Rick Perry will not be taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) Exit Level test for juniors this spring.  He’s probably not ready for it, according to this report in the New York Times.  It may be that no Republican in Iowa is ready for it, either.

Energy: The audiences at Mr. Perry’s events seemed somewhat unmoved by parts of his speech that talked about job creation. But when it came to energy and oil, they perked up.

“Every barrel of oil that comes out of those sands in Canada is a barrel of oil that we don’t have to buy from a foreign source,” Mr. Perry said in Clarinda, earning a loud round of enthusiastic applause.

Later, the audience reacted again to Mr. Perry’s assertion that buying so much energy from foreign countries is “not good policy, it’s not good politics and frankly it’s un-American.”

I wonder if it’s un-Canadian.

See also:

What Rick Perry said, and what he meant

December 12, 2011

Yeah, this guy — whoever she or he is — got it right:

Voldemort in Rick Perry's coat

Voldemort in Rick Perry's coat. We hope.

Rick Perry promises war on homosexuals and religious freedom

December 7, 2011

Is there any other way to read this?

Perry imagines a “war on religion,” based on his bigoted, anti-liberty views and some gross disinformation about what the rules are for kids praying in school.

What are the odds that, if elected, Perry would say, “Oops, I was wrong; I won’t do what that ad suggests?”

Perry’s offensive and erroneous text:

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.
As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.
Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.
I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.

I’ll take Barney Frank over Rick Perry any day.  Barney Frank is twice the man Rick Perry is, especially in standing up for the Constitution and freedom for all Americans.

I’ll take Barbara Jordan over Rick Perry.  She was twice the person Rick Perry is.  It seems to me that Perry plays with fire when he makes an ad that targets genuine Texas heroes like Jordan.

Perry professes to be a Methodist; does he have the guts to leave the church if he disagrees with its positions so much?

Is Perry going negative just because he’s losing, or is it really going to be that dirty a campaign?  This man shouldn’t be governor of Texas, and he has no business running for president.


Hey, Slacktivist, thanks for the link.

Bill Clinton: Want a good economy? Gotta have good, working government

August 19, 2011

Talking Points Memo billed it as a dig at Rick Perry’s not-grounded campaign platform, but we’d all do well to listen to former President Bill Clinton’s larger point here:  A good economy for a great nation requires a good, working government, regulations and all.

The video came from Azi Paybarah, attending Monday’s breakfast of the International Association of Firefighters convention in New York City, via Politicker NY, from The Observer.

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